CAMPBELL (KPIX 5) — Santa Clara County has seen a huge spike in EDD fraud and its accompanying trail of victims, including a pastor serving a mostly poor, immigrant congregation in the South Bay.
KPIX recently learned prosecutions are imminent in a major unemployment fraud case involving Santa Clara County jail inmates.READ MORE: Alameda County to Close Hotels Used For Homeless Without Additional Funding
RELATED: KPIX EDD Fraud Special Section
Every night, Jose Ortiz stops by a tiny room in Campbell where he has volunteered as a pastor for the past 20 years.
“A lot of people in my congregation are poor people, immigrants. This is why God put me here. I want to help,” said Pastor Ortiz.
He talks to his mostly non-English speaking parishioners about their daily challenges and shares his life struggles with them, including his battle with COVID last year. But there’s one thing he has kept a secret.
“I don’t tell my congregation the bad news. Mo, only the good news,” said Pastor Ortiz.
Back in October, the 72-year-old Guatemalan immigrant lost his day job cleaning offices and had to apply for unemployment for the first time in his life. He didn’t receive much — less than $150 per week — but he was able to use the money to buy groceries and other necessities for the family.
But one day when he checked the balance on his EDD debit card, he got a shock.
“My surprise is, ‘Oh wow! Somebody is stealing my money!'” said Ortiz.
Someone else had made $1,000 withdrawals at ATMs in Union City and Vallejo, then spent another $829 dollars at a Target in Pleasant Hill.
“I don’t go into Union City. I live in San Jose. I never go to this place,” said Pastor Ortiz.READ MORE: UPDATE: Oakland City Council Meeting Debates Adding Police After Spike in Homicides
But days after filing a fraud claim with Bank of America, the same standard letter KPIX has seen so many times arrived, telling Ortiz his claim was closed.
“It’s very frustrating how the system is not helping out,” said Pastor Ortiz’s son, Alex Ortiz. He is a San Jose police officer who pitched in on his day off to help his dad.
“I literally spent from 9 a.m. until 4 o’clock in the afternoon dealing with Bank of America,” explained Officer Ortiz.
Weeks later, Sunnyvale authorities arrested five suspects they believe were stealing mail and duplicating EDD Bank of America debit cards. Cash and guns were also found.
“I would describe them as sophisticated criminals,” said Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen.
Rosen said the October arrests led to a major ongoing investigation involving several hundred inmates at the Santa Clara County Jail and at least $12 million stolen taxpayer dollars.
“One of the things we’re trying to let the public know and let the criminals know is that we’re onto you,” said Rosen.
He said inmates provided their ID to accomplices on the outside, who applied for benefits and then transferred the benefit payments back to inmates through jail accounts. Investigators believe the accomplices got a kickback.
“You took money from hardworking, needy people that truly needed that money and didn’t belong to you. And you did this during the pandemic and caused additional suffering for other people, and you will be punished and held accountable for that,” said DA Rosen.
After KPIX submitted Pastor Ortiz’s name to Bank of America, the bank refunded him his $3,000 dollars.MORE NEWS: California Drought: Desalination Could Be Backup Plan For Marin County's Emergency Pipeline Project
“I can only thank God for parents who are humble and hardworking and that don’t ask very much from everyone, because they always believe God will supply and God would provide. But sometimes we need assistance,” said Alex Ortiz.