LOS ANGELES >> A Los Angeles couple who fled to Europe after being found guilty of running a fraud ring that stole $18 million in COVID-19 aid have been deported back to the United States to face jail time, authorities said Friday.
Richard Ayvazyan and his wife, Marietta Terabelian, were extradited from the Balkan country of Montenegro, where they lived in a luxurious beachfront villa before their arrest in February.
They arrived in Los Angeles on Thursday, according to the US Department of Justice.
While on the run last year, a Los Angeles court sentenced Ayvazyan to 17 years in federal prison and Terabelian to six years.
Prosecutors said the couple and six accomplices fraudulently applied for around 150 relief loans meant to help struggling businesses and employees during the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown.
They applied using false identities or names belonging to deceased or elderly people and foreign students, prosecutors said.
To support the claims, they submitted false tax documents and payroll records for bogus businesses to lenders and the US Small Business Administration, prosecutors said.
The money was used for down payments on luxury homes in the Tarzana area of Los Angeles, suburban Glendale and Palm Desert and to purchase “gold coins, diamonds, jewelry, luxury watches, quality imported furniture, designer handbags, clothing and a Harley-Davidson motorcycle,” a statement from the US Department of Justice said.
Ayvazyan and Terabelian were convicted in June 2021 of conspiracy to commit bank fraud and other federal crimes. Two months later, while free on bail, the couple cut off their ankle monitors and fled, leaving behind their three teenage children, authorities said.
Unemployment fraud has been a national problem during the pandemic as claims for benefits have overwhelmed state unemployment agencies. Criminals were able to buy stolen identity data from the dark web and use it to file a bunch of bogus claims.
The federal Department of Labor said about $87 billion in pandemic unemployment benefits may have been paid inappropriately nationwide, with a significant portion attributable to fraud. An Associated Press review in March 2021 found that estimates ranged from $11 billion in fraudulent payments in California to several hundred thousand dollars in states such as Alaska and Wyoming.