Tulare duo caught in COVID relief scam

Daniel Munoz and Melissa Esparza are arrested after forging documents, falsifying information in order to qualify for more than $5,000 in rental/utility assistance

TULARE – It wasn’t enough that two Tulare residents defrauded the city of Tulare for money set aside to help poor families pay their bills. They had to try it twice.

That proved to be enough to catch Daniel Munoz, 39, and Melissa Esparza, 38, in their attempt to steal more than $5,000 in COVID relief funds meant to provide mortgage, rental and utility assistance to 90 low-income families.

Daniel Munoz
39 years old

In May, the Tulare Police Department was made aware of possible fraudulent applications being submitted for financial assistance to Tulare residents through the Tulare County Housing Authority. Munoz and Esparza were recently flagged as allegedly filing fraudulent applications for funding. Esparza had already received and cashed a check for $2,205 through an application where she is suspected of “falsely presenting herself” by listing false information. On July 6, Munoz arrived at the Housing Authority to sign for a $3,000 check along with Esparza. They were met in the parking lot by Tulare Police officers who arrested them.

In February, the Tulare City Council set aside $273,000 for mortgage/rent and utility assistance provided to local governments through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, the $2 trillion federal relief package approved in 2020. Just shy of $224,000 went to the Housing Authority of Tulare County and $50,000 to United Way of Tulare County to administer the program. Tulare capped the assistance at $3,000 per household to help a greater number of families. To qualify, applicants had to demonstrate they had experienced financial hardship as a result of the pandemic and fall under federal income limits based on household size.

“The primary reason for the financial assistance was to assist Tulare residents who were having a hard time making rent or mortgage payments due to hardships surrounding COVID-19,” said Sgt. Edward Hinojosa, public information officer for Tulare PD.

Melissa Esparza
38 years old

Munoz and Esparza were transported to the Tulare Police Department for interviews and then to the Tulare County Jail where they were booked on charges of forgery and fraudulent personation.

“A third suspect is believed to have been working with Munoz and Esparza but we are withholding that name pending further investigation,” Hinojosa said. “More information will be released when it’s available.”

Anyone with any information regarding this investigation should contact Officer A. Veracruz at 559-686-3454. You can also leave an anonymous tip by calling 559-685-2300.

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