Leader of $6.8 Million Pandemic Fraud Scheme Pleads Guilty to Wire Fraud and Money Laundering Charges
Seattle – A former Seattle resident who defrauded federal COVID-19 benefit programs of more than $1 million pleaded guilty today in U.S. District Court in Seattle, announced U.S. Attorney Nick Brown. Bryan Alan Sparks, 42, was indicted for the fraud scheme in November 2021. Today Sparks pleaded guilty to wire fraud and aggravated identity theft. His coconspirator Autumn Gail Luna, 23, pleaded guilty in December 2022. Sparks is scheduled for sentencing by U.S. District Judge James L. Robart on April 18, 2023.
According to records filed in the case, from March 2020 until at least January 2021, Sparks and Luna used stolen personal information of more than 50 Washington residents and businesses to apply for Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDL) from the Small Business Administration (SBA) and unemployment benefits from the Washington Employment Security Department (ESD). The pair obtained approximately $521,900 from SBA and $519,700 from ESD. Sparks and Luna opened fraudulent bank accounts to receive the benefits and also had unemployment benefit debit cards mailed to a variety of addresses in the Seattle area where they could retrieve them.
Specifically, Sparks and Luna submitted at least 29 fraudulent loan applications to the Small Business Administration relief program, using the stolen identities of Washington residents and other real people. The applications sought approximately $1.47 million in aid intended to support small businesses, and the pair successfully obtained $521,900. Between March 2020 and January 2021, Sparks and Luna used the stolen identities of more than 50 people to claim approximately $519,700 in unemployment benefits. In all Sparks and Luna attempted to obtain at least $1.98 million in federally funded payments.
Sparks and Luna used the identities of real people and, in some instances, actual small businesses to open bank and credit accounts. The victims suffered significant harm. One person saw his credit score drop 200 points because of the seven credit and bank accounts the pair opened in his name.
In September 2020, law enforcement linked Sparks and Luna to lock boxes seized in Portland, Oregon. When the safes were searched, officers seized more than $65,000 in cash and a number of debit cards. In the plea agreement, Sparks admits that the cash and prepaid debit cards are all proceeds of the fraud scheme. The cash and debit cards are being forfeited to the government. In all, Sparks agrees to pay $1,041,661 in restitution to the government programs.
Under the terms of the plea agreement, prosecutors will recommend no more than 100 months in prison. The defense will recommend no less than five years in prison (60 months). U.S. District Judge James L. Robart is not bound by the recommendation and can impose any sentence allowed by statute.
Wire fraud that relates to a presidentially declared major disaster or emergency is punishable by up to 30 years in prison. Aggravated identity theft is punishable by a mandatory minimum two years in prison to run consecutive to any other sentence imposed in the case.
The investigation of this case is led by the Social Security Administration, Office of the Inspector General (SSA-OIG) and U.S. Postal Inspection Service, with partners: Colusa County Sheriff’s Office (CA); Washington State Employment Security Department; Small Business Administration, Office of the Inspector General; Amtrak Police Department (D.C.); FBI (Sacramento, CA office); FBI Cyber Task Force (D.C.); Washington State Department of Licensing, Driver and Vehicle Investigations; and the Department of Labor, Office of the Inspector General.
The case is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorneys Cindy Chang and Seth Wilkinson.
On May 17, 2021, the Attorney General established the COVID-19 Fraud Enforcement Task Force to marshal the resources of the Department of Justice in partnership with agencies across government to enhance efforts to combat and prevent pandemic-related fraud. The Task Force bolsters efforts to investigate and prosecute the most culpable domestic and international criminal actors and assists agencies tasked with administering relief programs to prevent fraud by, among other methods, augmenting and incorporating existing coordination mechanisms, identifying resources and techniques to uncover fraudulent actors and their schemes, and sharing and harnessing information and insights gained from prior enforcement efforts. For more information on the Department’s response to the pandemic, please visit https://www.justice.gov/coronavirus.
Anyone with information about allegations of attempted fraud involving COVID-19 can report it by calling the Department of Justice’s National Center for Disaster Fraud (NCDF) Hotline at 866-720-5721 or via the NCDF Web Complaint Form at: https://www.justice.gov/disaster-fraud/ncdf-disaster-complaint-form.
Press contact for the U.S. Attorney’s Office is Communications Director Emily Langlie at (206) 553-4110 or Emily.Langlie@usdoj.gov.