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March 9, 2022San Diego, CA, United StatesFinancial Crimes

Vista man pleads guilty to fraudulently obtaining more than $300,000 in EDD benefits following ICE HSI investigation

SAN DIEGO – U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE), Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) special agents participated in an investigation of Darris Cotton of Vista, California, who, on March 4, pleaded guilty in federal court to a fraud charge, admitting that he submitted false applications for unemployment benefits to California’s Employment Development Department (EDD).

Agents from HSI, U.S. Secret Service, Department of Labor Office of Inspector General, and detectives from the San Diego Police Department conducted the investigation into dozens of fraudulent applications that were submitted in July and August of 2020. During the investigation, law enforcement seized approximately $97,000 in U.S. Postal and MoneyGram money orders and $15,000 in U.S. currency from Cotton.

As set forth in his plea agreement, Cotton began submitting fraudulent applications for benefits just a few months after Congress passed the CARES Act and expanded these benefits. Cotton also admitted that he submitted fraudulent applications for benefits to EDD in addition to the sixteen specified in the plea agreement and submitted fraudulent applications for benefits in other states such as Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Arizona. Cotton used the benefits he fraudulently obtained to purchase luxury items such as Gucci-brand backpacks.

“HSI special agents and our law enforcement partners have worked tirelessly to bring to justice criminal networks that are exploiting the global pandemic for personal financial gain,” said Special Agent in Charge Chad Plantz of HSI San Diego. “This guilty plea assures this individual can no longer illegally profit from resources dedicated toward those needing financial assistance due to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

As admitted in the plea agreement entered before U.S. District Judge Todd W. Robinson, Cotton used third parties’ names, dates of birth, and social security numbers to submit false applications for benefits. Cotton listed an address in Vista, California on at least sixteen different applications. After California’s EDD mailed debit cards containing the benefits to Cotton’s address, he took the cards to various locations to purchase money orders for the purpose of extracting the funds. Cotton admitted to fraudulently obtaining at least $312,000 in benefits. As part of his plea agreement, Cotton agreed to forfeit $97,400 in money orders and $15,139 in currency that was seized from him.

“While so many deserving people were suffering from pandemic-related economic challenges, this defendant used a global pandemic to cash in,” said U.S. Attorney Randy Grossman. “These benefits are intended for those who truly need it, not for greedy people who exploit the system.”

HSI is a directorate of ICE and the principal investigative arm of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), responsible for investigating transnational crime and threats, specifically those criminal organizations that exploit the global infrastructure through which international trade, travel, and finance move. HSI’s workforce of over 10,400 employees consists of more than 7,100 special agents assigned to 220 cities throughout the United States, and 80 overseas locations in 53 countries. HSI’s international presence represents DHS’s largest investigative law enforcement presence abroad and one of the largest international footprints in U.S. law enforcement.

Learn more about HSI’s mission to combat fraud @HSISanDiego.

Updated: 03/09/2022