VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) – A Virginia Beach family and two inmates in the state prison system are facing federal charges, including conspiracy, in relation to an unemployment fraud scheme that operated partially behind bars during the pandemic.
Nicole Waff and her adult children Yazmine and Jaqwon are accused of illegally applying for and receiving expanded unemployment benefits on behalf of Jermaine Waff (Nicole’s brother), Ethan Torres and over a dozen other inmates from multiple state prison facilities. At the time, federal funds dispersed under the CARES Act had boosted the amount of money applicants could receive on top of state-covered assistance.
During this time, Jermaine was an inmate at the River North Correctional Center in Independence and Torres was incarcerated at the Buckingham Correctional Center. The pair recruited other inmates into the scheme, passing on only a portion of their payments, and effectively stole others’ identities without their knowledge.
According to an indictment filed on August 24, the group was originally able to rake in $284,842, mostly paid out through prepaid debit cards between June and December 2020.
The document alleges, “The purpose of the conspiracy was for the defendants and others to profit personally by obtaining hundreds of thousands of dollars in UI benefits to which they were not entitled during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Nicole, Yazmine and Jaqwon allegedly filed for benefits using the Virginia Unemployment Commision’s online portal, inventing home addresses, phone numbers and other information to fit with the names, birth dates and social security numbers they’d illegally gathered. In a recorded jail call in early July, Yazmine and Jaqwon informed Torres that they were often wholly inventing the names of prior employers on the applications.
The indictment also notes they lied about the supposed applicants’ unemployment being due to the pandemic as well as their ability and willingness to work if hired (because they were incarcerated). They were required to repeat these lies weekly in order to keep the cash cards flowing, which they did until December, at which point the VEC moved to end payments to known inmates.
In order to avoid suspicion, Yazmine, Jaqwon and Nicole used a myriad of addresses in Virginia Beach including their own to get the cards delivered. Yazmine allegedly told Jermaine in another recorded call that no more than two accounts were being used per address.
Inside the correctional facilities, the other inmates involved in the scam received only a fraction of the money paid out in their name, often through CashApp or the prison JPAY system. On a July 10 phone call, the document notes that Jaqwon and Jermaine discussed how to split up one of the disbursements: they’d each take $4,500, while the fake applicant got just $1000.
According to the indictment, Jaqwon spent about $4000 over the summer of 2020 on sneakers and electronics.
But in the end, for these defendants, it turns out crime doesn’t pay. Of the original sum, the VEC was able to take back almost $70,000 in unspent funds on the fraudulent accounts. If they’re found guilty, they’ll be liable for the remaining $215,467.
All five participants face charges for mail fraud, conspiracy, conspiracy to commit fraud in connection with major disaster benefits, and criminal forfeiture. Yazmine and Jermaine also face charges for aggravated identity theft.
An arraignment is set for September 7 at the Eastern District Court in Norfolk.
WRIC reported in June that the VEC had 280,000 suspected cases of fraud under review.