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Florence couple pleads guilty to unemployment fraud scheme

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A Florence couple, as well as family members from Florida and New York, have all pleaded guilty for their role in a nationwide unemployment fraud conspiracy.

Mohammad Ribhi Farraj, 43 and Nariman Mahmoud Masoud, 35, both of Florence, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud, as did Susan Masoud, 31, of Brooklyn, N.Y. and Marvet Masoud, 34, of Homestead, Fla., according to a news release from the U.S. District Attorney’s office.

A lengthy investigation by the FBI included witness interviews, confidential informants, search warrants and subpoenas, the release said. The investigation revealed that from January 2020 to February 2022, the defendants engaged in a wire fraud conspiracy to file and receive fraudulent claims for regular unemployment insurance and expanded pandemic benefits from New York, Florida and South Carolina.

The defendants would electronically submit false unemployment claims to various state agencies, using the personal identifying information of others. They then had the funds loaded onto prepaid debit cards issued in the names of the third parties, had the cards mailed to addresses under their control, and used the cards to withdraw cash from ATMs, according to the release.

Mohammad Farraj’s and Nariman Masoud’s role in the scheme was to obtain personal identifying information, create fraudulent unemployment insurance applications, recruit others into the scheme, withdraw money from accounts containing benefits, and place that money into their bank accounts and cryptocurrency accounts. Marvet Masoud and Susan Masoud helped create fraudulent applications and withdrew money from accounts containing benefits, the U.S. Attorney said.

The total amount of the unemployment insurance fraud alone was at least $444,753.

“These defendants callously took advantage of an unprecedented and nationwide pandemic-borne employment crisis,” said U.S. Attorney Adair F. Boroughs. “They stole money specifically intended for out-of-work Americans trying to make ends meet, and they used that money to enrich themselves.”

Each defendant faces a maximum penalty of 20 years in federal prison. They also face a fine of up to $250,000, restitution, and three years of supervision to follow any term of imprisonment.  U.S. District Judge Joseph Dawson  III accepted the guilty pleas and will sentence the defendants after receiving and reviewing sentencing reports prepared by the U.S. Probation Office.

 A fifth defendant, Wafah Masoud, 33, of Wylie, Texas, had her case continued in order to complete a pretrial diversion program given her limited role in the scheme.

This case was investigated by the FBI. Assistant U.S. Attorneys Derek A. Shoemake, who served as the office’s Coronavirus Fraud Coordinator, and Lauren Hummel are prosecuting the case.

Reach Christina Lee Knauss at 803-753-4327.

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