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Over $200 billion in pandemic business loans appear to be fraudulent, a watchdog says

A woman walks past a personal finance loan office in October 2020 in Franklin, Tenn.
Mark Humphrey
A woman walks past a personal finance loan office in October 2020 in Franklin, Tenn.

Updated June 27, 2023 at 6:41 PM ET

Of the $1.2 trillion in federal aid disbursed on an emergency basis to small businesses during the pandemic, at least $200 billion — or 17% — may have gone to scammers.

That's the latest, most complete assessment of potential fraud by the Office of Inspector General of the Small Business Administration, which oversaw the disbursement of the aid.

The report, called "COVID-19 Pandemic EIDL and PPP Loan Fraud Landscape," details how the rush to make the money available made it easier for fraudsters to apply for loans to keep non-existent businesses afloat, and then have those loans forgivenand covered by tax dollars.

"The agency weakened or removed the controls necessary to prevent fraudsters from easily gaining access to these programs and provide assurance that only eligible entities received funds," the report says. "However, the allure of 'easy money' in this pay and chase environment attracted an overwhelming number of fraudsters to the programs."

The OIG says the $200 billion estimate is the result, in part, of "advanced data analytics" of SBA data on the pandemic cash disbursements.

At the time, government officials said the potential economic emergency posed by the pandemic shutdowns of 2020 necessitated a quick loans — despite the likelihood of fraud.

"There is something to that argument, especially when it's applied to the very early weeks of the program," says Sam Kruger, an assistant professor of finance at the University of Texas who has studied pandemic fraud. But he says the data analysis behind this new report shows the government did have the ability to tighten up the system.

"Some of the analysis that the SBA [OIG] has done on the back end here, you could conceive of this being done in real time," Kruger says.

The current administration of the SBA estimates that almost 90% of the potential fraud happened during in 2020, during the first nine months of the pandemic, and that since then, the Biden Administration has implemented more real-time, anti-fraud checks.

"SBA did in fact do that, when we put our anti-fraud control framework in place," says Katie Frost, Deputy Associate Administrator in the Office of Capital Access at SBA. As examples, Frost says, the SBA now checks the mismatches of names and employer identification numbers.

They also say there's a large gap between the Inspector General's estimate of the size of potential fraud, versus the SBA's estimated amount of likely fraud, once cases have been looked at more closely.

"Potential fraud is a little like the metal detector going off," says Gene Sperling, senior advisor to the President and White House Coordinator for the American Rescue Plan. "It means you should investigate further, because sometimes it's a gun, but other times it's a big buckle on your belt."

The SBA puts the amount of likely fraud at approximately $36 billion.

"The number is significantly less," Sperling says, but "it's still unacceptable, it's outrageous, it's too high. We're proud that in 2021 we were able to come in and reduce that."

The inspector general report says the SBA and federal investigators are clawing back some of the stolen money. It points to "1,011 indictments, 803 arrests, and 529 convictions related to COVID-19 EIDL and PPP fraud as of May 2023." All told, the report says "nearly $30 billion" in aid has been seized or returned to the government.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.

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