Pa. Prison COVID Unemployment Scam Unravels

WILK News Room

HARRISBURG― Attorney General Josh Shapiro today announced state charges against 20 inmates and accomplices in three state prisons in central and eastern Pennsylvania. These arrests are linked to at least two existing rings, or organized groups of inmates and outside accomplices who conspired to provide false information on COVID-19 unemployment benefit applications.

“After announcing our first round of arrests in these COVID unemployment scams, I promised that there were more to come,” said Attorney General Shapiro. “Today, 20 more individuals have been charged with illegally taking benefits away from hard-working Pennsylvanians who are struggling during this crisis. These arrests are not the end of our investigation, and I’ll continue working with my colleagues at the federal level to track down those heading these schemes, along with those who are willfully participating and breaking the law.”

The first and larger ring was operated in Centre County, out of State Correctional Institution (SCI) Benner. The second ring was operated in Schuylkill County, out of SCI Mahanoy.

The Benner ring included two ringleaders and eight additional co-conspirator inmates. Adele Moore, of State College, and James G. Neff Zonge, an inmate at SCI Benner, began operating the fraud ring out of SCI Benner after Moore successfully applied for COVID-19 unemployment benefits on behalf of Neff Zonge. Moore and Neff Zonge established a system in which Moore would use an inmate’s personal identifying information, apply for COVID-19 benefits from her address, and then give the inmate a portion of the collected benefits. Moore would often keep the majority of the money for her own personal use. In total, the SCI Benner ring obtained $153,470 in fraudulent COVID-19 unemployment benefits.

The Mahanoy ring included two ringleaders, Wendy Danfora and Markal Munford, as well as two additional inmates. Danfora, of York, also took the personal identifying information of her inmate co-conspirators to apply for COVID-19 unemployment benefits. As part of the scheme, Danfora gave a portion of the benefits to the inmates, but kept the majority for her personal use. In total, the SCI Mahanoy ring obtained $109,900 in fraudulent COVID-19 unemployment benefits.

There were also six individual inmates arrested without any known links to a ring. These arrests are part of an ongoing investigation by the Office of Attorney General in partnership with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the eastern district of Pennsylvania.

Individuals are only eligible for PUA benefits if they are both unemployed for reasons related to the COVID-19 pandemic and available to work. In order to receive benefits, an individual must access the PUA website and file a PUA claim. The applicant is required to enter personal identifying information and answer eligibility questions. Individuals who are serving a sentence of incarceration, or who are detained pending a criminal trial, are neither available for work nor unemployed for reasons related to the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, they are not eligible to receive PUA benefits for the period of their incarceration.

Individuals who apply for emergency unemployment benefits when they are employed or incarcerated are breaking federal and state law. Individuals found to be involved with organized efforts to obtain emergency unemployment benefits illegally can face significant prison time and financial penalties. In some instances, like the arrests today, ringleaders of these schemes can face over 60 years, and their co-conspirators can face well over 40 years.

To read the full press release from the office of the Attorney General, click here.