At least nearly $ 100 billion has been stolen from COVID-19 relief programs put in place to help businesses and people who have lost their jobs due to the pandemic, the U.S. Secret Service said on Tuesday.
The estimate is based on Secret Service cases and data from the Department of Labor and the Small Business Administration, Roy Dotson, the agency’s national pandemic fraud recovery coordinator, said in a statement. interview. The Secret Service did not include the COVID-19 fraud cases prosecuted by the Justice Department.
While about 3% of the $ 3.4 trillion has been dispersed, the amount stolen from pandemic benefit programs shows that “the sheer size of the pot is attractive to criminals,” Dotson said.
Most of this figure comes from unemployment fraud. The Labor Department reported that around $ 87 billion in unemployment benefits could have been inappropriately paid, with a significant portion attributable to fraud.
The Secret Service said it seized more than $ 1.2 billion in an investigation into unemployment insurance and loan fraud and returned more than $ 2.3 billion in funds fraudulently obtained while working with financial partners and states to cancel transactions. The Secret Service says it has more than 900 active criminal investigations into pandemic fraud, with cases in every state, and 100 people have been arrested so far.
The Justice Department said last week its fraud section prosecuted more than 150 defendants in more than 95 criminal cases and seized more than $ 75 million in cash from the paycheck protection program funds obtained fraudulently, as well as many purchased real estate and luxury items. with the product.
One of the best-known programs created by the CARES law of March 2020, PPP offered low-interest loans and repayable loans to small businesses struggling to keep up with the payroll and other costs. expenses during closures related to the pandemic.
At the start of the pandemic, law enforcement focused on personal protective equipment fraud, the Secret Service said. Authorities have now prioritized harnessing pandemic relief, as federal funding through the CARES Act has caught the attention of individuals and organized crime networks around the world.
“Can we stop the fraud? Are we going? No, but I think we can certainly prosecute those who need to be prosecuted and we can do our best to recover as much of the fraudulent pandemic funds as we can, ”said Dotson, who is the Deputy Special Agent of the Secret Service in charge. of the agency’s domain. office in Jacksonville, Florida.