Three San Bernardino County women who have been accused of stealing $1 million in federal financial aid from Fullerton college, in California, have been arrested by the U.S. Justice Department and are charged with various counts of mail and wire fraud. The scheme involved enrolling hundreds of mainly non-existent students, successfully applying for grants and loans and pocketing the money.
After being indicted by a federal grand jury, the three women pleaded not guilty to multiple counts of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and wire fraud, counts of mail and wire fraud; they also face charges of aggravated identity theft and financial aid fraud. Sparkle Shorale Nelson, Shykeena Monique "Shy" Johnson, and Jerrika Eldrena Lashay "Muffin" Johnson allegedly filed online requests for college financial aid using their names, stolen identities, and the identities of at least two inmates in California state prisons, according to the indictment. A Department of Justice news release also noted that the "vast majority" of the people enrolled at the college never attended classes. Though a Fullerton College spokesperson claimed she was unaware of the case, the college had dealt with identical scams before.
The defendants and un-indicted co-conspirators obtained the names and Social Security numbers of 234 "straw students" and used their personal information to enroll them at Fullerton and other colleges in 2013 and 2014. After applying online and qualifying for federal government financial aid, the funds were sent to the college, which then deducted tuition and fees from said amount and sent the remaining balance to the fake students via debit card or paper check. In this case, the defendants received the debit cards, accompanied by a PIN that could be used to activate the cards online. Nelson allegedly activated one card issued in the name of a prisoner, using it to pay a $370 Southern California Edison bill. In total, the defendants collected $1,089,856. If convicted, all three women face statutory maximum sentences of more than 300 years in federal prison.