The federal government is investigating and prosecuting what is turning out to be one of the biggest frauds in the history of the U.S., a new report from the New York Times revealed. Across the country, thousands of people stole billions of dollars of COVID-19 relief funding — all while the pandemic left millions of their fellow Americans unemployed.
Prosecutors are hustling to catch up with all the fraud, the Times said. So far, the feds have charged 1,500 people with defrauding the COVID-19 relief programs and have nailed more than 450 with convictions.
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg: The government has “500 people working on pandemic-fraud cases across the offices of 21 inspectors general, plus investigators from the F.B.I., the Secret Service, the Postal Inspection Service and the Internal Revenue Service,” the Times reported. The Labor Department has nearly 40,000 of these COVID-19 fraud investigations still ongoing, and four dozen Small Business Administration agents are looking through 2 million loan applications for potential fraud.
So far, the government has discovered money sent to so-called “farms” that were actually just people’s front yards; unemployment monies given to dead, imaginary and jailed folks; loans to nearly 350 people who put their name down as “N/A”; and handouts to recipients who were literally on the government’s “Do Not Pay List.”
And there were the illicit massage parlors that nailed down loans; plus, high-ticket purchases like a mansion, a yacht, a $38,000 Rolex and a $57,000 Pokemon card.
The approximately $5 trillion in COVID-19 relief enacted by the Trump and Biden administrations was ripe for fraud, according to investigators talking to the Times, because the government was “relying on the honor system.”
President Joe Biden signed bills this summer designed to give investigators more time to nab fraudsters by extending the statute of limitations for some COVID-19 relief fraud from five years to 10 years. And it appears the government intends to use all of that time.
“There are years and years and years of work ahead of us,” the Department of Justice’s chief pandemic prosecutor, Kevin Chambers, said. “I’m confident that we’ll be using every last day of those 10 years.”