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Four charged with scamming COVID-related hotel room program

October 7, 2021 By Brooklyn Eagle Staff
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Chanette Lewis, Tatiana Benjamin, Tatiana Daniel and Heaven West have been charged with a scheme that defrauded New York City’s COVID-19 Hotel Room Isolation Program of more than $400,000 by falsely claiming to be health care workers and then selling the rooms to non-qualifying individuals, according to the Department of Labor and the NYC Department of Investigation.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, New York City created the COVID-19 Hotel Room Isolation Program. Funded by New York City and FEMA, the program provided free hotel rooms for qualifying individuals throughout New York City. The program was open to health care workers who needed to isolate because of exposure to COVID-19; patients who had tested positive for COVID-19; people who believed, based on their symptoms, that they were infected with COVID-19; and people who lived with someone who had COVID-19.

Those who wished to book a hotel room through the program could either call a phone number or use an online hotel booking platform.

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The four defendants secured free program hotel rooms for themselves by falsely claiming to be health care workers, then sold use of the rooms  to customers who were ineligible for the program, according to the U.S  Attorney’s Office for the Southern District.

In total, the defendants allegedly diverted more than 2,700 nights’ worth of hotel rooms through this scheme. Customers paid the defendants in cash and using electronic payment services. The federal government and New York City paid more than approximately $400,000 for the hotel rooms that were fraudulently diverted as a result of the defendants’ scheme, according to the complaint.

Lewis worked at a call center that handled phone calls and reservations for the program for several months in 2020. As a result of her employment, she had access to legitimate health care workers’ identifying information. She allegedly abused her position, including by misappropriating health care workers’ identifying information, revealing the program’s inner workings to co-conspirators, and making unauthorized sales of program hotel rooms to ineligible individuals.

For instance, Lewis sold Benjamin, for $800, personal identifying information for at least five health care professionals, as well as certain “codes” to use when booking hotel reservations through the program, such as the employee ID number and license number.

Lewis admitted, in Facebook messages, that she had stolen doctors’ identifying information in furtherance of the scheme, writing: “I work for 311 oem that how I got doctors licenses and stuff… I work in the part that I collect they information and I do and approval the booking… I take doctors and stuff certificate numbers and stuff,” according to the complaint.

Lewis also advertised to potential customers that, when hotels asked for a health care worker’s identification, she would supply a purported paystub and a letter asserting that the individual was (purportedly) a health care worker, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

The defendants made various incriminating statements via Facebook, including the following statements: (1) Lewis told one hotel customer, “I’m booking it as u a health care worker”; (2) Benjamin told a Facebook user, “Friend at 311 gave me the juice for the hotel so I been booking ppl rooms”; (3) Daniel told Lewis, “We gotta relocate that bitch they keep asking for employee ID”; and (4) when asked whether she had “rooms” available, West replied, “Nah I dead don’t bro / All essential hotels are clipped” and added, “They finding out we was scamming the system lol,” according to the complaint.

All four defendants were paid by, among other means, Cash App, and their Cash App accounts revealed payments where the memo line said, for instance, “1 month telly”, “Hotel Manhattan 2 week extension for Kenny []”, “for the 2 week room”, “ayo telly”, “2 week stay in Manhattan”, “the room”, and “hotel for july 4-6”.

U.S. Attorney for the Southern District Audrey Strauss,
Photo courtesy of U.S. Justice Dept.

Lewis is also charged with a second COVID-19 scheme involving unemployment benefits fraud. She allegedly obtained more than $45,000 in unemployment benefits by claiming falsely that she had not been employed since February 2020 due to a lack of work because of the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, she was employed for at least some of that period at the call center.

U.S. Attorney for the Southern District Audrey Strauss said, “At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, New York City designed a program to provide hotel rooms, free of cost, for qualifying individuals who could not safely self-isolate in their own homes, such as health care workers and individuals infected with COVID-19. As alleged, the defendants abused this program by falsely claiming to be health care workers and by selling hotel rooms to non-qualifying individuals. When, as alleged here, people illicitly exploit a public health crisis for private gain, they will find themselves facing criminal charges.”

DOI Commissioner Margaret Garnett said, “During the heart of the COVID-19 pandemic, while this city grappled with soaring transmission and death rates, these defendants exploited the very city-run program meant to provide respite and isolation to health care workers and city residents desperately trying to find space to quarantine and stem the spread of the virus, according to the charges.”

U.S. Attorney Strauss praised the outstanding efforts of agents, investigators, and analysts from DOI, DOL-OIG, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York. She also thanked the New York/New Jersey High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) Intelligence Analysts for their support and assistance in this investigation.

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