Billions Stolen Through COVID Relief Fraud

Federal prosecutors now allege that hundreds of billions of dollars have been stolen by people who intentionally defrauded the federal government through the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and other COVID-19 relief measures.

In what is being described as the largest fraud in American history, the fraudsters who wrongfully obtained taxpayer funds purchased mansions, luxury cars, five-star vacations, and private jet travel. In one example, Mustafa Qadiri of Irvine, California, used PPP money to directly purchase three cars that each cost six figures, including a 2011 Ferrari 458 Italia.

Around 10 percent of the PPP funding of $800 billion was distributed as a result of fraud. That is in addition to the estimated $90 billion to $400 billion that was wrongfully obtained through the federal $900 billion COVID unemployment assistance program. NBC News has reported that at least half of the stolen money was obtained by foreign actors. Yet another pandemic relief program is believed to have led to another $80 billion in stolen money.

Federal prosecutors believe that most of the stolen funds are not recoverable, but there are still ways to prevent additional fraud related to more than $600 billion that has not yet been distributed. Early distributions unfortunately sacrificed security for speed in getting the money sent out.

Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz said that the way the relief programs were designed made them easy targets for criminals. He said that the Small Business Administration essentially sent the money out without much more than a form in which applicants said they are entitled to the funds. Horowitz added that the program did not build in “even minimal checks” to be sure the money was being properly distributed.

The unemployment funds were often stolen by organized crime groups using stolen identities to claim jobless benefits. Each identity could produce up to $30,000 in stolen benefits. The plundering of PPP was even more lucrative. Many of the loans that were made and then forgiven under the program were worth millions of dollars each.

It is estimated now that millions of PPP borrowers either inflated their numbers of workers or simply created companies for the sole purpose of obtaining loans. Lenders were held harmless for borrower fraud, leading to very little verification.

As seems to be the case with every federal stimulus program, the thing that mattered most was getting funds distributed to favored constituencies.