Fort Branch mother and daughter sentenced in COVID-19 fraud case


Notice: Historical Content

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Date: October 28, 2021


EVANSVILLE — Two Fort Branch, Indiana women have been sentenced in connection with a well-organized Nigerian fraud ring exploiting the COVID-19 crisis to commit large-scale fraud against state unemployment insurance programs.

Andrea Renee Pytlinski and Rose Ann Azzarello, both of Fort Branch were arrested and charged with wire fraud in July 2020. Azzarello is the mother of Pytlinski. Pytlinski was sentenced to 18 months imprisonment, must serve 3 years of supervised release following her incarceration, and ordered to pay $27,522 in restitution. Azzarello was sentenced to 4 years of supervised release and ordered to pay $27,522 in restitution.

Part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act included a provision of temporary benefits for individuals who had exhausted their entitlement to regular unemployment compensation, individuals who were not eligible for regular unemployment compensation, were self-employed, or had limited recent work history. Shortly after the CARES Act was signed, the U.S. Secret Service started receiving reports about a well-organized Nigerian fraud ring exploiting the COVID-19 crisis through a large-scale fraud against state unemployment insurance programs. A major state targeted was Washington.

According to evidence presented at the sentencing hearings, in May 2020, the Fort Branch Police Department received a complaint from Field and Main Bank in Evansville, regarding account transactions in which Washington State Unemployment benefits were being ACH transferred into Indiana bank accounts held by Azzarello and Pytlinski. Agents from the U.S. Secret Service, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and Internal Revenue Criminal Investigation discovered those accounts were being funded with Washington State unemployment benefits and the proceeds of a check forgery scheme.

For more than a year, Azzarello and Pytlinski participated in a wire fraud scheme by receiving and sending funds via wire and common courier. After the illicit funds were deposited into their accounts, Azzarello and Pytlinski would withdraw the funds prior to the detection of any fraud and then transmit a portion of the ill-gotten funds to a third party while retaining their share. In total, the fraud schemes the women participated in involved more than $95,000.

"The investigative work of our federal and local law enforcement partners is to be commended," said Acting U.S. Attorney John E. Childress. "They prevented funds designed to help struggling Americans during a very difficult time from being used by greedy, money hungry thieves, and assured these fraudsters would be held accountable."

"IRS Criminal Investigation is sworn to protect the tax system and bring to justice those who would steal from the Treasury," said Justin Campbell, Acting Special Agent in Charge of IRS-Criminal Investigation Chicago Field Office. "Would-be criminals should know we've made CARES Act fraud a priority. We understand that in these types of cases, the government is not the only victim. Those in need of these rescue funds during an unprecedented world-wide pandemic also suffer, as well as every hard-working American. Our agents are determined to keep up the fight to eradicate CARES Act fraud and protect the honest taxpayers who would otherwise personally shoulder the burden of this crime."

"Today's sentencing illustrates the Secret Service's commitment to protect the nation's financial service infrastructure by vigorously investigating COVID-19 unemployment fraud," said Eric K. Reed, Special Agent in Charge, Secret Service Indianapolis Field Office. "The Secret Service is proud to partner with the Fort Branch Police Department, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Internal Revenue Criminal Investigation, and the U.S. Attorney's Office to successfully arrest and prosecute those who attempt to defraud critical COVID-19 relief programs and the American taxpayer."

"This sentence clearly demonstrates that those who engage in illegal activity and attempt to profit off of the COVID-19 crisis through fraud will be identified, investigated and held accountable for their actions," said FBI Indianapolis Special Agent in Charge Paul Keenan. "To target money meant to help those who are at their most vulnerable during these unprecedented times is reprehensible and will not be tolerated."

The case was investigated by the Internal Revenue Criminal Investigation, the U.S. Secret Service, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Fort Branch Police Department.

Assistant United States Attorneys Todd Shellenbarger prosecuted the case.

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.