‘Heinous form of fraud’: Florence couple accused in COVID-19 pandemic fraud scheme

Published: Mar. 4, 2022 at 1:20 PM EST
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FLORENCE, S.C. (WMBF) – A Florence couple is accused of taking money meant for those who were struggling to their pay their bills during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to federal authorities.

Agents arrested Mohammad Farraj and Nariman Masoud on Thursday during an FBI operation on Edgeware Court.

The pair faces several federal charges including wire fraud related to unemployment insurance benefits and aggravated identity theft.

The two appeared in federal court Friday morning where they both pleaded not guilty to the charges.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Derek Shoemake explained that the charges were related to two schemes that the couple is accused of taking part in.

The indictment alleges in the first scheme, the two would steal the identities of people who never applied for pandemic-related unemployment benefits, then would get the benefits on a debit card and withdraw the money.

According to the indictment, the money was used “for their personal enrichment and entertainment.”

Shoemake said that the couple would apply for benefits across South Carolina, New York and Florida.

“The White House down to the Department of Justice has made it clear that attacking pandemic fraud is a top priority for the federal government and also here in the state of South Carolina,” Shoemake stated. “When people take advantage of the pandemic to put money in their own pockets, they’re not just stealing from the federal government, they’re taking money directly out of the hands of hardworking South Carolinians and Americans across the country, and when that happens everyone gets hurt.”

The court documents go on to state that another alleged scheme involved an Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL), which was provided by the Small Business Administration to help businesses that were negatively impacted by the pandemic.

The indictment claims that the defendants put money into a company that wasn’t in operation and funneled that money to a company that was in operation but was not entitled to an EIDL loan. Shoemake explained that from there the couple further funneled the funds into personal checking accounts.

The indictment shows that Farraj “used the funds to make credit card payments and to transfer money into cryptocurrency accounts.”

According to Shoemake, the couple managed to receive over $500,000 in loans and benefits and stole the identities of several victims.

“What we see in these types of crimes are really the worst types of criminals because when people take advantage of those at their weakest to enrich themselves, it’s an extremely heinous form of fraud that we’re going to work to attack and we’re going to prosecute these cases,” Shoemake said.

Masoud has been released from jail on a $25,000 surety bond, while Farraj remains behind bars. Farraj is scheduled to have a detention hearing Tuesday afternoon.

If found guilty, the two face a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison plus an additional two consecutive years for aggravated identity theft.

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