A woman serving life in prison for murder admitted Wednesday that she played a leading role in a scam by inmates and others to use stolen identities to secure state unemployment benefits during the coronavirus pandemic.

Natalie Le DeMola, 38, pleaded guilty to federal charges of bank fraud, aggravated identity theft and conspiracy to commit bank and wire fraud.

She is one of 13 people charged in May with running a scheme to get at least $2 million in mainly pandemic-related unemployment benefits, in some cases using the stolen identities of California prison inmates.

From June 2020 to September 2020, DeMola admitted, she used the names, dates of birth and Social Security numbers of detainees and others to make fraudulent applications for unemployment insurance that was meant for people who lost jobs because of the pandemic.

DeMola acknowledged she also applied for benefits for herself despite knowing she was ineligible.

The California Employment Development Department approved DeMola’s fraudulent applications and issued bank debit cards that co-conspirators used to withdraw cash from automated teller machines in Los Angeles and other parts of California, prosecutors say.

When coronavirus lockdowns upended the U.S. economy in March 2020, Congress approved trillions of dollars in rescue money, including more than $888 billion in unemployment benefits, but with minimal protections against fraud.

At least $60 billion of that money has been lost to fraud, and just a small fraction has been recovered.

One of DeMola’s co-defendants has pleaded guilty to bank fraud. The eleven others have been offered plea deals, Assistant U.S. Atty. David C. Lachman told U.S. District Judge John F. Walter.

DeMola, originally of Corona, was a teenager when she, her boyfriend and an acquaintance conspired to kill her mother in April 2001, according to court records.

Michael Finnegan

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