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Tampa man sentenced to 5 years for COVID identity theft scheme

  • By Louis Llovio
  • | 3:30 p.m. May 23, 2024
  • | 2 Free Articles Remaining!
  • Tampa Bay-Lakeland
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A 29-year-old Tampa man is heading to federal prison for a conspiracy to steal personal information from medical patients in order to make unemployment claims in several states during COVID-19.

U.S. District Judge Thomas P. Barber sentenced Mehdi Tazi earlier this week to five years in prison and ordered that he pay $1.07 million in restitution.

Tazi pleaded guilty in February to one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and aggravated identity theft and one count of aggravated identity theft.

Three others he had worked with were sentenced earlier.

According to the United States Attorney's Office for the Middle District of Florida and court records, including plea agreements and the indictment, here is what happened:

Between June 2020 and April 2021, the four co-conspirators worked to get the personal information of patients at an unnamed Tampa Bay hospital where one of them, Melinda Sue Hernandez, worked.

The other two involved in the scheme were Tyree Wingfield of Dade City and Steve Aloysius Moodie Jr. of Tampa.

Tazi’s plea agreement says the group was able to collect the names, Social Security numbers and dates of births of the victims and use that information to apply for unemployment insurance benefits online from various state workforce agencies including Arizona and Nevada.

This was possible because Congress had approved, and the president had signed into law, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act. These expanded states’ ability to provide unemployment benefits for workers impacted by COVID-19, including those not ordinarily eligible for benefits, the Justice Department says.

As part of that expansion, state workforce agencies allowed people to apply for the benefits online or by downloading an application and mailing it in.

Once the benefits were approved, the funds were sent to bank accounts, with debit cards, opened in the names of the people whose identities had been stolen.

The four then used the fraudulently obtained debit cards to withdraw the money and use it for personal items.

In all, prosecutors say, they were able to collect between $1.5 million and $3.5 million.

Moodie, 36, was sentenced to five years in 10 months; Wingfield, 26, was sentenced five years and 10 months; and Hernandez, 35, was sentenced three years and six months.

This case was investigated by the United States Postal Inspection Service and Homeland Security Investigations. It was prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorney Greg Pizzo.



Louis Llovio

Louis Llovio is the deputy managing editor at the Business Observer. Before going to work at the Observer, the longtime business writer worked at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Maryland Daily Record and for the Baltimore Sun Media Group. He lives in Tampa.

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