September 30, 2022

Prosecutors Struggle to Catch Up to a Tidal Wave of Pandemic Fraud

“I just seen 30 cards land in one day. Got straight on the phone and activate,” Mr. Baines rapped in the song, flashing cash and envelopes with preloaded debit cards from the state.

“Unemployment so sweet,” Mr. Baines said.

All three of those programs are now over. There is no official estimate for the amount of money that was stolen from them — or from pandemic-relief programs in general. The Justice Department has charged people with about $1 billion in fraud so far, and is investigating other cases involving $6 billion more, investigators said.

But other reports have suggested the real number could be much higher. One official said the total of “improper” unemployment payments could be more than $163 billion, as first reported by The Washington Post. In the Economic Injury Disaster Loan program, a watchdog found that $58 billion had been paid to companies that shared the same addresses, phone numbers, bank accounts or other data as other applicants — a sign of potential fraud.

“It’s clear there’s tens of billions in fraud,” said Michael Horowitz, the chairman of the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, which includes 21 agency inspectors general working on fraud cases. “Would it surprise me if it exceeded $100 billion? No.”

The effort to catch fraudsters began as soon as the money started flowing, and the first person was charged with benefit fraud in May 2020. But investigators were quickly deluged with tips at a scale they’d never dealt with before. The Small Business Administration’s fraud hotline — which had previously received 800 calls a year — got 148,000 in the first year of the pandemic. The Small Business Administration sent its inspector general two million loan applications to check for potential identity theft. At the Department of Labor, the inspector general’s office has 39,000 cases of suspected unemployment fraud, a 1,000 percent increase from prepandemic levels.

But prosecutors face a key disadvantage: While fraud takes minutes, investigations take months and prosecutions take even longer.

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