Former Atlanta business owner sentenced to prison for obtaining millions of dollars in COVID-19 relief fraud, tax identity theft and credit card fraud


Date: June 30, 2023


Jose Fernandez has been sentenced for seeking over $5 million by submitting fraudulent Paycheck Protection Program ("PPP") applications, filing false tax returns using stolen identities, using credit cards he obtained with stolen identities, and check fraud. He ultimately obtained more than $2 million in fraudulent funds, which he then used for his personal benefit.

"Fernandez committed a litany of frauds, including an attempt to steal millions of dollars from a COVID relief program, financial institutions, and the IRS by stealing the identities of innocent victims to file false tax returns," said U.S. Attorney Ryan K. Buchanan. "His sentence reflects the scope of his criminal conduct."

"People who commit PPP fraud and identity theft can expect to be held accountable just as Jose Fernandez has," said Lisa Fontanette, acting Special Agent in Charge, IRS Criminal Investigation, Atlanta Field Office. "We will continue working with our law enforcement partners to bring to justice individuals who commit these types of crimes that financially harm honest law-abiding citizens and defrauds the U.S. Government."

"Fernandez will have many years in prison to think about his long list of crimes and greed. He not only hurt business owners in need of the Covid relief funding, but even stole the identities of family members," said Keri Farley, Special Agent in Charge of FBI Atlanta. "With our law enforcement partners, we will continue to identify and hold accountable anyone who violates the law to siphon money from these programs into their own pockets."

"This sentencing holds the defendant in this case accountable for seeking to fraudulently obtain millions of dollars from the Paycheck Protection Program, the IRS, and our Nation's financial institutions," said Special Agent in Charge Kyle A. Myles of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation Office of Inspector General (FDIC OIG). "The FDIC OIG remains committed to working with our law enforcement partners to investigate financial crimes and bringing to justice those who threaten to undermine the integrity our Nation's financial system."

"The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration aggressively pursues those who endeavor to defraud taxpayer-funded Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act programs, which were established to provide assistance to American business owners during unprecedented times," stated Inspector General J. Russell George. "We appreciate the efforts of the U.S. Department of Justice and our law enforcement partners in ensuring individuals engaged in criminal activity are held to account."

According to U.S. Attorney Buchanan, the charges and other information presented in court: The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act ("CARES") is a federal law enacted on March 29, 2020. It is designed to provide emergency financial assistance to the millions of Americans who are suffering the economic effects caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. One source of relief provided by the CARES Act was the authorization of up to $349 billion in forgivable loans to small businesses for job retention and certain other expenses through the PPP. In April 2020, Congress authorized over $300 billion in additional PPP funding. Additional funding was authorized by Congress in December 2020. The PPP allows qualifying small businesses and other organizations to receive loans with a maturity of two years and an interest rate of one percent. PPP loan proceeds must be used by businesses on payroll costs, interest on mortgages, rent, and utilities. The PPP allows the interest and principal to be forgiven if businesses spend the proceeds on these expenses within eight weeks of receipt and use at least 75 percent of the forgiven amount for payroll.

Fernandez operated multiple small businesses in the metro-Atlanta area from at least as early as 2016 through 2020. Fernandez submitted multiple PPP applications on behalf of several companies controlled by him or his associates that contained materially false information about the companies' total number of employees, corporate expenses, and revenue. As a result of these false applications, he received over $1.6 million in fraudulent PPP funds. He then used these fraudulently obtained funds to make unauthorized expenditures, including purchases of a home, automobiles, and additional personal items.

Fernandez, who operated a tax preparation business for several years, also stole thousands of identities of his own clients, and of other individuals from a medical supply company, to file false tax returns claiming over $2 million in fraudulent refunds. The IRS was able to stop the vast majority of these funds from being issued to Fernandez.

In addition, Fernandez committed fraud against financial institutions. He obtained fraudulent credit cards in the names of family members and identity theft victims, which he then used to make hundreds of thousands of dollars in fraudulent purchases. Finally, Fernandez obtained blank check stock that was to be used to print tax refund checks for his tax preparation business clients. He used those checks to attempt to fraudulently write more than $900,000 worth of checks to businesses under his control and to pay personal expenses and debt.

Jose Fernandez, of Winter Haven, Florida, has been sentenced to five years and ten months in prison to be followed by three years of supervised release. Fernandez was charged in a five-count criminal information on January 25, 2023, and pleaded guilty.

This case was investigated by Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigation, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation Office of Inspector General, and the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration. Also, the Gwinnett County Police Department provided substantial assistance in this investigation.

Assistant U.S. Attorneys Thomas J. Krepp and Tracia M. King prosecuted the case.

On May 17, 2021, the Attorney General established the COVID-19 Fraud Enforcement Task Force to marshal the resources of the Department of Justice in partnership with agencies across government to enhance efforts to combat and prevent pandemic-related fraud. The Task Force bolsters efforts to investigate and prosecute the most culpable domestic and international criminal actors and assists agencies tasked with administering relief programs to prevent fraud by, among other methods, augmenting and incorporating existing coordination mechanisms, identifying resources and techniques to uncover fraudulent actors and their schemes, and sharing and harnessing information and insights gained from prior enforcement efforts. For more information, please visit the Department's coronavirus response.

Anyone with information about allegations of attempted fraud involving COVID-19 can report it by calling the Department of Justice's National Center for Disaster Fraud (NCDF) Hotline at 866-720-5721 or via the NCDF Web Complaint Form.