Nurse Sonja Robinson of Canaseraga lives real life nightmare; woman who allegedly used her identity, credentials indicted by federal grand jury
CANASERAGA — A suspected identity thief allegedly used the professional credentials of a Canaseraga nurse to work in the health care industry for years, amassing hundreds of thousands of dollars in earnings, despite a post-high school education consisting of two credit hours for a speed-reading course.
The suspect, according to law enforcement and a federal grand jury, collected huge fees and salaries as a health care consultant, cashed checks worth tens of thousands of dollars, purchased cars and homes worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, and left the credential record of Sonja Robinson of Canaseraga in tatters.
The United States District Court, Eastern District of Michigan, Southern Division, reported an 11-count grand jury indictment in the spring, charging Sonja Emery, 52, (aka “Sonja Lee Robinson,” “Sonjalee Emery-Robinson,” and Sonjalee Emery”) with a series of fraud and tax evasion crimes including mail fraud, wire fraud, obstructing the IRS, and tax evasion.
The indictment, as summarized by healthleadermedia.com, "alleges that Emery, a resident of New York, New Jersey, and Georgia, earned six-figure salaries, failed to file timely tax returns, failed to pay income taxes on the scammed money, and lied to the Internal Revenue Service, from 2011 to 2014."
According to the indictment, “Emery provided ... false and forged documents, records, and references to substantiate her credentials and employment history, including a false background report and credit report, among other items.”
Sonja Robinson of Canaseraga is telling her story to educate others about the ease with which identity thieves can ruin credit records and professional job histories of honest people.
Robinson’s story begins in 2000 when, she later learned, a woman in Atlanta, Ga., allegedly assumed her name and started buying expensive items such as houses and cars. Within a few years, Sonja Robinson told The Spectator, she began getting telephone calls from bankers and collection agencies about late payments for those costly items.
As the number of calls from places she had never visited escalated, Robinson was referred to the Secret Service but she was only sent a package of information on how to prevent identity theft.
About 12 years ago, while working at a hospital in Rochester, Robinson said she received a call from the New York state Department of Education telling her someone had used her nursing license to gain employment but had been fired before anyone realized it.
A few years later, she received a call from the FBI and the US Inspector General's office and learned her license had been used by someone to gain employment at several New York City area hospitals as well as at companies around the country working as a highly-paid consultant. Calls from collection agencies created a portrait of somebody who called herself Sonja Robinson and was on an ambitious spending spree.
The FBI learned that suspect Sonja Emery is a five-foot tall African-American while the Canaseraga Sonja Robinson is Caucasian and about five-feet ten-inches tall. Emery allegedly gave addresses that were businesses or vacant buildings or similarly unlivable locales.
Back in Canaseraga, Sonja Robinson’s voice mail messages and letters got more hostile as the spending sprees grew to include a candy-apple red Ford Expedition and a $615,000 townhouse. The suspect simply stopped paying for her new car and home (and a multitude of utilities and other purchases) soon after those purchases, but since she allegedly had used Robinson's Social Security number, actual addresses where she lived, birth date, and other stolen identifiers, the real Sonja Robinson was presumed by collection agencies to be responsible for all the unpaid bills.
Robinson, a familiar and respected member of the Canaseraga community, learned that the state Department of Education Professional Licensing Bureau does limited research when prospective employers seek verification of employment. Robinson also got an unwanted 18-year-long lesson in Postal Inspectors General, the Secret Service, U.S. attorneys in California and Michigan, FBI offices in Buffalo and how a credit history can be ruined.
Emery was arrested in May in California and charged with tax evasion plus wire and mail fraud for unpaid taxes on millions of dollars investigators say she earned fraudulently. The FBI in Michigan sought a denial of bail but a California magistrate in Oakland set a $50,000 bond, with Emery's public defender saying she was heading to New York for cancer treatment. According to the East Bay Times newspaper (Calif.), Emery, posing as Sonja Robinson, pulled in more than $900,000 as a contractor and consultant to the Contra Costa County (Calif.) Health Plan.
For the record, Sonja Robinson of Canaseraga has been a Registered Nurse since 1991 and for more than six years a member of the Canaseraga Board of Education where she is currently vice president. She also plays the organ at St. Mary’s Church Sunday services, and the piano for student performances at Canaseraga Central School.
Robinson explained why she is telling her story.
“I don’t want others to suffer or deal with the ruthless harassment as I have,” she said.
Consider these relevant statistics: Identity theft is a multi-billion dollar fraud that impacts millions of Americans annually, experts say. And fraud is a growing larceny worth $16.8 billion in 2017, an increase from $16.2 billion in 2016.
Nobody is predicting the trend will reverse in the near future.
Sonja Robinson agreed to the interview because she wants area residents to understand how easily scammers, in the jargon of law enforcement professionals, can dip into somebody’s life savings or steal information with the click of a computer.
“No one can prevent identity theft,” Robinson said. “But we can take steps to help protect personal data that’s under our control. Protecting your personal information is important, but I can tell you that if someone wants your info, they'll get it. Just know that it's important to check your credit reports frequently and if you see anything suspicious, check into it immediately. The FBI feels this person has a similar name to mine, did a random search and found someone with a similar name and just took off from there.”
Robinson added, "In addition to the potential financial impact that can result when someone assumes your identity, it can also negatively impact your credit, which will likely prevent you from securing loans, receiving favorable rates on loans or even getting a job. I couldn't even get a store credit card for years.”
Closely monitoring your credit reports can also prevent those unwanted gut-wrenching calls from collection agencies, Robinson said.
Additional reporting by Neal Simon.