Pandemic Fraud is Keeping Prosecutors Busy
While the Covid pandemic has taken many twists and turns, the data on fraud continues to soar. Officials are pursuing 39,000 investigations in the U.S. Labor Department alone, a workload that will take years to resolve, the New York Times reported. That’s in addition to the cases being developed in the Small Business Administration, which is reviewing 2 million pandemic loan applications, and investigations underway in other government agencies.
U.S. officials have already brought cases against 1,500 people for pandemic-related fraud, winning 450 convictions. But those figures remain just a tiny portion of the caseload that investigators are continuing to pursue, according to the newspaper.
In August, President Biden signed legislation that increased the statute of limitations for certain pandemic frauds to 10 years from the previous five years. “There are years and years and years of work ahead of us,” Kevin Chambers, the Justice Department’s chief pandemic prosecutor, told The Times. “I’m confident that we’ll be using every day of those 10 years.”
From the very start of the pandemic, scammers looked for ways to exploit worried consumers. They have hatched crimes involving fake treatments, phony vaccine cards, and useless test kits to capture personal insurance information and other data, and to steal money.
What is becoming clearer now is the vast scope of fraud that zeroed in on the government’s programs of financial relief, a $5 trillion pot of cash. Investigators have unearthed cases of unemployment benefits earmarked for people in prison – or dead, The Times reported. Relief money went to “farms” that turned out to be people’s front yards. One fraudster collected unemployment benefits from 29 different states. Another was found bragging of his exploits on YouTube.
Economists say the emergency funding helped keep the economy afloat, especially in the early phase of the pandemic. But the strategy of fast-tracking such an immense quantity of cash with little oversight created a windfall for scammers. “My message to those cheats out there is this – you can’t hide,” Biden said. “We’re going to find you. We’re going to make you pay back what you stole and hold you accountable under the law.”