A guest checking into a Manhattan hotel.
Photo: ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images
It sounded like the ultimate COVID-era travel bargain: five-star hotels in Manhattan at a 60 percent discount. “I do not know exactly what hotel u would be place but I know it would be 5 star hotel … be cash app ready!!” read a Facebook post hyping the deal. A Cash App–only hotel promotion might raise a few red flags, but trust that the rooms were very much real — they were just supposed to be set aside for COVID patients and health-care providers. The scam was uncovered after four months of excellent business, and this week, federal prosecutors charged Chanette Lewis with fraudulently booking New York’s emergency COVID hotel rooms using health-care workers’ stolen personal information. Lewis, 30, and three other accomplices are alleged to have advertised the rooms on Facebook and to have made a whopping $400,000 by booking more than 2,700 nights’ worth of stays in the spring and summer of last year.
Lewis, whose actual job was to book quarantine rooms on behalf of the city, had access to health-care workers’ personal information through her work at the Office of Emergency Management. But she allegedly used their credentials to book stays for her guests instead, making it look like they had been exposed to COVID. “I stole some doctor numbers and emails … I was writing down they employed ID number lmao,” prosecutors say Lewis wrote in a Facebook message. The hotel rooms, which would normally run hundreds of dollars a night, went for only $50 a night and $150 for the week. She then took the cash, prosecutors say, and the city was billed for the rooms. The grift went so well that Lewis recruited others to help her out. “I wanna teach u the ropes of it,” she messaged her co-conspirator Tatiana Benjamin, 26, in June. Her guests did the opposite of quarantine; some threw parties and, as one special agent for the U.S. Attorney ominously put it, “engaged in violence.” Lewis even booked 28 nights for herself.
The city caught up with the alleged scam in early July and immediately booted people from rooms and sent out letters canceling upcoming reservations that had been made through the scheme. If found guilty, Lewis could face more than 70 years in prison; her accomplices could each face 40 years. It took some time for the charges to be filed, but when everything started falling apart last year, the grifters apparently saw the writing on the wall — as Benjamin wrote to Lewis in a Facebook message, “We goin to jail lmao.”