With pandemic-related closures battering the U.S. economy and unemployment money flowing, Zachary Gathercole, an inmate at the Chester County Prison, stumbled across what he believed to be a foolproof scheme, federal prosecutors say.

Working with his brother’s fiancee on the outside, he allegedly recruited a network of fellow inmates to file for emergency unemployment assistance, claiming they’d lost their jobs due to COVID-19 shutdowns when they had actually been incarcerated since before the coronavirus arrived in the Philadelphia region.

“I feel like if [the government is] stupid enough to give it to you, that’s on them,” the brother’s fiancee, Jennifer D’Hulster, told Gathercole when he allegedly pitched the idea during a phone call from behind bars in July.

Neither of them considered that their frequent conversations about the hustle were being recorded by the prison phone system.

Citing those calls as evidence, federal authorities in Philadelphia charged Gathercole, 30, of Sadsburyville, and D’Hulster, 37, of Coatesville, on Tuesday with bilking the state’s unemployment system out of tens of thousands of dollars between May and August.

Two others — Gathercole’s girlfriend, Ashley Harrington, 30, of West Chester, and inmate Anthony Schweitzer, 20, of Coatesville — have also been accused of involvement in the scheme.

“Sadly, fraudsters consider a national public health crisis as an opportunity to cash in,” U.S. Attorney William M. McSwain said in a statement. “That callous attitude rips off honest taxpayers who fund relief programs, and also makes it much more difficult to provide funds to those who deserve and need them.”

Since March, millions of Pennsylvania residents have lost work due to coronavirus shutdown orders, overwhelming the state’s unemployment system and forcing many to rely upon the federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program to supplement their benefits with an additional $600 a week.

The case against Gathercole, D’Hulster, and their codefendants comes a week after Attorney General Josh Shapiro and Scott Brady, U.S. attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania, announced charges against 33 people involved in similar schemes at state prisons in Greene, Fayette, and Forest Counties, and local jails in Allegheny, Butler, Lawrence, Somerset, and Westmoreland Counties.

Speaking at an Aug. 25 news conference in Pittsburgh, they said they had found the names of an additional 10,000 state prison inmates on Pennsylvania’s unemployment rolls. But they said they were still investigating whether those people were aware that jobless claims had been filed on their behalf.

In announcing the case against Gathercole, D’Hulster, and their codefendants Tuesday, federal prosecutors in Philadelphia did not say whether the other inmates involved were active participants, or had merely lent their identifying information to Gathercole.

Department of Labor investigators found an address book in Gathercole’s cell at the Chester County Prison containing the dates of birth, Social Security numbers, and names of seven other inmates they say he recruited for the scheme, including his brother, an inmate at the state prison in Phoenixville.

While Gathercole allegedly guided D’Hulster on how to use that information to file the paperwork online for the others, Harrington, Gathercole’s girlfriend, filed his claims, netting about $12,330 in benefits over three months, prosecutors said.

Investigators believe Gathercole instructed D’Hulster on how to use that information to file claims on behalf of others, suggested she open a post office box under a fake name to receive the benefit cards, and told her that she could take a cut of the proceeds for herself.

In one call cited in court filings, he called the scheme “almost foolproof,” later adding, “The government [expletive] us enough, so why shouldn’t we get one over on the government?”

Gathercole has been incarcerated at the Chester County Prison since last year for a string of offenses including robberies, retail thefts, and criminal mischief. He pleaded guilty in January and is awaiting sentencing.

Schweitzer, the other inmate charged Tuesday, is also incarcerated there on charges including theft, assault, harassment, and contempt of court.

D’Hulster was arrested Tuesday morning for alleged her role in the scheme, prosecutors said. Harrington was arrested on a series of retail theft charges after having submitted the false unemployment application on Gathercole’s behalf. She was also incarcerated in the Chester County Prison when she and the others were indicted on federal fraud and conspiracy charges Tuesday.

If convicted, they face up to 30 years in prison on the most serious count.

It was not immediately clear from court records whether any of them had retained attorneys.