An NYC call center worker and three others have been arrested and charged for allegedly running a scheme where they rented out vacant hotel rooms at discounted prices that were meant for quarantining health care workers or people exposed to COVID-19.
Chanette Lewis, a 30-year-old NYC call center worker (above), and three others, Tatiana Benjamin, 26, Tatiana Daniel, 27, and Heaven West, 21, are facing serious fraud charges after being accused of running a scheme that defrauded New York City’s COVID-19 Hotel Room Isolation Program of more than $400,000.
Chanette Lewis, 30,worked as an Office of Emergency Management call center where she was responsible for booking rooms under the Hotel Room Isolation Program. The program was created to provide a place for healthcare workers exposed to COVID to quarantine.
Prosecutors believe Chanette Lewis, who was also charged with a second COVID‑19 scheme involving unemployment benefits fraud, accessed real health worker details and used them to book five-star hotel rooms. She promoted these rooms on Facebook at massive discounts and sold them to customers who were ineligible for the Program. Some of the guests she sold the rooms to threw massive parties in the suites. Not smart.
“I’m Doing Hotels 60 Percent 5 star hotels I do not know exactly what hotel u would be place but I know it would be 5 star hotel … be cash app ready !!” Chanette allegedly wrote on Facebook.
“At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, New York City designed a program to provide hotel rooms, free of cost, for qualifying individuals who could not safely self-isolate in their own homes, such as healthcare workers and individuals infected with COVID-19," Manhattan U.S. Attorney Audrey Strauss said. "As alleged, the defendants abused this program by falsely claiming to be healthcare workers and by selling hotel rooms to non-qualifying individuals. When, as alleged here, people illicitly exploit a public health crisis for private gain, they will find themselves facing criminal charges.”
They basically laid out their plan in Facebook posts and messages to people to convince them to buy the rooms.
In private messages, Chanette allegedly admitted she was stealing health care workers’ private information for the hotel room scheme.
“I stole some doctor numbers and emails … I was writing down they employed [sic] ID number lmao,” she wrote. “I made 16K in 5 days I’m proud of myselfffff.”
Here’s how they made their money:
For instance, LEWIS sold BENJAMIN, for $800, personal identifying information of at least five healthcare professionals, as well as certain “codes” to use when booking hotel reservations through the Program, such as the employee ID number and license number. LEWIS admitted, in Facebook messages, that she had stolen doctors’ identifying information in furtherance of the scheme, writing: “I work for 311 oem that how I got doctors licenses and stuff . . . I work in the part that I collect they information and I do and approval the booking . . . I take doctors and stuff certificate numbers and stuff.” LEWIS also advertised to potential customers that, when hotels asked for a healthcare worker’s identification, LEWIS would supply a purported paystub and a letter asserting that the individual was (purportedly) a healthcare worker.
All four defendants used Facebook to advertise the sale of fraudulently obtained Program hotel rooms; communicate with co-conspirators; and communicate directly with customers. LEWIS worked directly with BENJAMIN and DANIEL, while WEST worked with, among others, DANIEL.
The defendants made various incriminating statements via Facebook, including the following statements: (1) LEWIS told one hotel customer, “I’m booking it as u a health care worker”; (2) BENJAMIN told a Facebook user, “Friend at 311 gave me the juice for the hotel so I been booking ppl rooms”; (3) DANIEL told LEWIS, “We gotta relocate that bitch they keep asking for employee ID”; and (4) when asked whether she had “rooms” available, WEST replied, “Nah I dead don’t bro / All essential hotels are clipped” and added: “They finding out we was scamming the system lol.” All four defendants were paid by, among other means, Cash App, and their Cash App accounts revealed payments where the memo line said, for instance, “1 month telly”, “Hotel Manhattan 2 week extension for Kenny ”, “for the 2 week room”, “ayo telly”, “2 week stay in Manhattan”, “the room”, and “hotel for july 4-6”.
LEWIS is also charged with a second COVID-19 scheme involving unemployment benefits fraud. LEWIS fraudulently obtained more than $45,000 in unemployment benefits by claiming falsely that she had not been employed since February 2020 due to a lack of work because of the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, LEWIS was employed for at least some of that period at Call Center-1, and LEWIS’s employment there ceased not because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but because LEWIS stopped showing up to work.
Chanette and her friends allegedly ran the scheme from April 2020 to June 2020, while she worked for the program.
Chanette Lewis and Tatiana Daniel were arrested in New York and will be presented before Magistrate Judge Katharine H. Parker in Manhattan federal court. Heaven West was arrested in Atlanta, Georgia, and will be presented before Magistrate Judge Catherine M. Salinas in the Northern District of Georgia. Tatiana Benjamin still remains at large.
Below is a chart that breaks down their charges and maximum sentences:
Photo: Facebook/U.S. Attorney’s Office