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Fugitive in $18 million COVID fraud scheme extradited to U.S. 2 years after she fled country

Secret Service returns $286 million in relief funds
Secret Service returns $286 million in stolen COVID relief funds 00:21

A leader of a Los Angeles-based fraud ring that stole $18 million in COVID-19 aid money was extradited Monday from Europe to the United States, where she could face more than a decade in prison, authorities said.

Police in Montenegro said Tamara Dadyan, 41, was turned over to the U.S. Marshals Service at an airport in Podgorica, the capital of that Balkan nation, the Los Angeles Times reported. She had pleaded guilty to three felonies and vanished after her 2021 sentencing but before she was to report to prison.

Dadyan, her sister, brother-in-law and five others fraudulently applied for about 150 relief loans intended to help businesses and employees struggling during the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown, federal prosecutors said.  

Tamara Dadyan FBI

They applied using fake identities or names belonging to dead or elderly people and foreign exchange students, and backed up the applications with phony tax and payroll documents, according to the prosecutors.

Authorities said the money was used for down payments on luxury homes in the Tarzana area of Los Angeles, suburban Glendale and the Palm Desert and to buy luxuries ranging from gold coins and jewelry to designer handbags.

Dadyan had pleaded guilty to three felonies, including conspiracy to commit wire fraud and bank fraud, and was sentenced in 2021 to 10 years and 10 months in federal prison.

However, she was allowed to remain free for nearly two months and disappeared the day before she was supposed to report to prison, leaving behind two teenage daughters at her home in L.A.'s Encino neighborhood, authorities said. Dadyan was a real estate broker in the area, CBS Los Angeles reported.

She traveled to Montenegro and in February 2022 arrived at a luxury resort where her brother-in-law, Richard Ayvazyan, and his wife, Marietta Terabelian, were living in a rented seaside villa, authorities said.

Authorities said Ayvazyan and Terabelian had fled, leaving behind their three teenage children, after being convicted in 2021 of conspiracy and other federal crimes. The couple had cut off their GPS ankle monitors and disappeared, according to the FBI. They were extradited to the U.S. last November.

Ayvazyan is serving a 17-year prison sentence. His wife is serving six years.

"The defendants used the COVID-19 crisis to steal millions of dollars in much-needed government aid intended for people and businesses suffering from the economic effects of the worst pandemic in a century," U.S. Attorney Tracy L. Wilkison said after the sentences were handed down.

Unemployment fraud was a nationwide problem during the pandemic, as surging benefit applications overwhelmed state unemployment agencies. Criminals were able to buy stolen identity data on the dark web and use it to file a heap of phony claims.

In testimony on Feb. 8 to a congressional committee, Larry D. Turner, the inspector general for the U.S. Department of Labor, estimated that at least $191 billion of the $872.5 billion in federal unemployment insurance benefits paid out during the pandemic "could have been improper payments, with a significant portion attributable to fraud."

"Based on our audit and investigative work, the improper payment rate for pandemic UI programs was likely higher than 21.52%," Turner testified.

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