LOS ANGELES – Federal authorities have charged a total of 22 defendants with defrauding the Social Security Administration by illegally receiving cash benefits and causing a cumulative loss of $2.6 million. Most of the defendants are charged with taking Social Security benefits for relatives after the family members had died and failing to alert the agency that the actual beneficiary had passed away.

Federal grand juries in Los Angeles returned 21 indictments last week, cases that were announced Monday, April 18, after one defendant — an employee of the Social Security Administration — was arrested for allegedly diverting benefits to herself.

Those charged last week include the federal government employee, a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy and a San Fernando Valley man — Jose Aguinaco Ugalde, 68, of West Hills — who is accused of illegally receiving more than $400,000.

“Government programs like Social Security provide important benefits to qualified individuals so they can have economic security,” said United States Attorney Eileen M. Decker.

“We cannot tolerate abuse of the system that provides support to millions of honest Americans, many of whom worked their entire lives to receive Social Security benefits. This series of cases illustrates our commitment to root out abuse and fraud involving social security, and to protect the integrity of an important program aimed at helping senior citizens and the most vulnerable in our society.”

All of the defendants are charged with theft of government property, a crime that carries a statutory maximum sentence of five years in federal prison. Some of the defendants are charged with additional offenses, including aggravated identity theft and defrauding the Social Security Administration.

The Social Security Administration employee – Daysi Salazar-Arias, 38, of Thousand Oaks – was arrested Monday by special agents with the Social Security Administration’s Office of the Inspector General. Salazar-Arias is named in an eight-count indictment that alleges she diverted benefits to herself and making it appear that the money was going to legitimate beneficiaries, one of whom was deceased.

Salazar-Arias was expected to be arraigned on the indictment in United States District Court in downtown Los Angeles.

Vicki Lynn Gregory, a sergeant with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, is charged with seven felony counts for allegedly taking her mother’s

Widow’s Insurance Benefits after she died. According to the indictment, Gregory “intentionally concealed the death of her mother…in order to continue to receive and spend these Widow’s Insurance Benefits.” Gregory allegedly illegally received approximately $30,000.

In the case involving the largest alleged loss, Ugalde is charged with 16 counts, including aggravated identity theft, an offense that carries a mandatory two-year prison sentence. According to the indictment, Ugalde stole Retirement Insurance Benefits that continued to be sent to his father, even though the man had died.

Ugalde also allegedly stole spousal benefits that were intended for his ex-stepmother. The two identity theft charges in the indictment allege that Ugalde illegally used a debit card issued to his late father, as well as the signature of his ex-stepmother, in stealing these Social Security benefits.

“The Social Security Administration’s Office of the Inspector General is committed to pursuing those who violate the public trust,” said Robb Stickley, the Special Agent in Charge of the San Francisco Field Division, which is responsible for Southern California. “We will continue to uphold the integrity of Social Security’s benefit programs, which are a lifeline for so many Americans and their families.”