New York Daily News
NEW YORK — A group of Brooklyn gang members with ties to the drill rap scene turned the COVID-19 unemployment program into a “bottomless ATM,” using stolen identities to score more than $4 million, police and federal authorities said.
Police caught wind of the fraud when members of the NYPD’s intelligence bureau noticed that members of the Canarsie-based Woo gang were making trips to California, renting houses, buying expensive cars and posing on social media with stacks of cash at the beginning of the pandemic.
That led to a federal probe with the Department of Labor Inspector General’s office – and on Thursday, the arrest of 11 suspects in a scheme to steal nearly $20 million in unemployment funds.
The suspects got away with more than $4.3 million before authorities cut off the money flow and arrested them, police say.
They even bragged about the scheme in a YouTube rap video, “Trappin’,” with the lyrics, “Unemployment got us workin’ a lot.”
In New York state, applicants for COVID-related unemployment were given ATM cards issued by KeyBank, or got the money through direct deposits into existing bank accounts or old-fashioned paper checks.
“The result of this was like gang criminal magic. It was a never-ending spigot of money, because when you tapped out the funds from one identity, you simply moved on to another, and to another, and to another,” said NYPD Deputy Commissioner for Public Information John Miller. “Imagine a bottomless ATM that was free, and just spit out cash.”
Early in the pandemic, the state had such a high demand for unemployment claims that its website crashed, leading Google to help fix and redesign the site.
The system helped people in need apply quickly, but it also offered an opportunity for the gang members to get rich quickly, at least early on, Miller said.
One of the suspects, Romean Brown, 23, was pulled over for running a stop sign in Brooklyn in January 2021, and had three KeyBank debit cards on him, according to a federal complaint.
He posted a message months earlier on Facebook, asking if he should open a new chat on Telegram so he could get even more IDs to use. “S— is too easy,” he said, according to the compliant.
“Individual gang members were purchasing hundreds of names from the dark web, the deep web and criminal sources that included Social Security numbers,” Miller said.
They’d also get driver’s licenses, often for $150 a piece, according to federal court documents.
The gang members would cycle between dozens of KeyBank cards at a clip, withdrawing as much as they could at an ATM before moving onto a new identity,
“A lot of this money was pulled out in cash almost immediately,” Inspector William Viscardi of the NYPD criminal intelligence division said. That money was either spent as cash, or quickly transferred to an app like Venmo, making it impossible to recover, he said.
The suspects were showing off Ferraris and other luxury cars, houses with palm trees and flights on private airplanes, authorities said.
They’d also brag about their prosperity in rap videos, challenging their rivals over who had the better cars or jewelry, police sources said.
The Woo gang and its rival Cho gang has ties to the violence tearing through the drill rap scene. In 2019, Rising Brooklyn rapper Pop Smoke, who has ties to the Woo gang, was gunned down in a rental house in Los Angeles. Earlier this month, Tajay Dobson, 22, better known by his stage name Tdott Woo, was shot dead just hours after signing a recording contract.
The fraud suspects — Brown, Tyrek Clarke, 21, Kennith Desir, 20, Stephan Dorminvil, 21, Kai Heyward, 22, Keith James, 20, Oneal Marks, 20, Jahriah Olivierre, 22, Christopher Jean Pierre, 21, Roleeke Smith, 20, and Christopher Topey, 21 — all face charges in Brooklyn federal court.
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