President Biden on Thursday unveiled a “sweeping” plan to go after COVID-19 pandemic aid fraudsters who stole billions of taxpayer dollars, and to help victims who lost their benefits to identity thieves.
The White House proposes to spend $1.6 billion on a three-pronged crackdown investigating and prosecuting systemic pandemic fraud, developing new tools to prevent identify theft, and providing resources to victims who not only lost the aid they needed, but also may have had their credit scores deteriorate or face tax liabilities through no fault of their own.
“There’s no question when the Biden administration walked in the door, we inherited a historic degree of fraud due to the pandemic programs designed and administered at the onset of the pandemic,” said Gene Sperling, a senior adviser to the president who is coordinating the implementation of Biden’s COVID-19 relief law.
Sperling told reporters on a conference call that the White House coordinated with Department of Justice (DOJ) watchdogs and key members of the oversight community to identify how much funding law enforcement needs to prosecute the “explosion of fraud” that occurred during the pandemic.
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“We want to not only capture them, get their funds, we want to send a signal to them that you can run, but you cannot hide,” Sperling said.
To that end, Biden proposes to spend $600 million creating 10 new DOJ “strike force teams” consisting of U.S. attorneys and other federal law enforcement officials to prosecute pandemic fraud. These teams would build on the work of three “strike forces” that Biden announced in his State of the Union Address that have successfully seized and recovered $286 million in stolen pandemic relief funds.
The president is also proposing that Congress increase the statute of limitations to 10 years for fraud involving the pandemic Unemployment Insurance program, which would give prosecutors more time to investigate and bring criminals to justice. Included in Biden’s request is $300 million to hire new investigators at the Small Business Administration and Department of Labor Inspector General’s office to recover fraudulent payments from COVID-19 benefit programs.
The second component of Biden’s plan includes another $600 million to strengthen fraud prevention and identify theft prevention for federal benefits programs. Biden would expand existing anti-fraud programs and modernize federal agency verification systems to prevent identity theft. In the president’s upcoming budget request, to be released on March 9, 2023, Biden will ask Congress to pass reform legislation to prevent, detect and recover improper payments made through the Unemployment Insurance program.
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Biden will also make $1.6 million in American Rescue Plan funding available to states to modernize their Unemployment Insurance systems and prevent fraud, identity theft and payment error.
Lastly, the president proposes $400 million in new spending to provide help to victims of identity fraud. This would include developing an “Early Warning System” to alert individuals when their identity information is being used to access public benefits programs and give them the option to stop potentially fraudulent transactions. Biden wants to improve IdentityTheft.gov to be a “one-stop shop” both for reporting identity crimes and accessing recovery assistance — with the federal government coordinating, as appropriate, with state and local non-profit legal services and community-based organizations to do so.
Additional funding would be made available to non-profit groups to provide direct services to victims under Biden’s proposal.
The federal government paid out more than $4.6 trillion in COVID-19 pandemic relief under programs enacted by Biden and President Donald Trump. Congress rushed to approve trillions in spending, providing an opportunity for sophisticated crime syndicates and everyday criminals to take advantage of the government’s generosity and steal benefits meant for people who lost their jobs or had to close their businesses during COVID-19 lockdowns. There were also “improper payments,” which shouldn’t have been made or were made in the incorrect amount.
FRAUDSTER GOLD MINE: COVID UNEMPLOYMENT RELIEF PROGRAMS DEFRAUDED BY OVER $60 BILLION: GAO
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported last month that the full extent of fraud in COVID-19 relief programs is not yet known, but estimated there was over $60 billion in fraudulent payments in the Unemployment Insurance program alone.
From March 2020 through January 13, 2023, at least 1,044 individuals pleaded guilty to, or were convicted at trial on federal charges of, defrauding COVID-19 relief programs, GAO said. This included the Small Business Administration’s (SBA) Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and COVID-19 Economic Injury Disaster Loan (COVID-19 EIDL) program, the Department of Labor’s (DOL) Unemployment Insurance (UI) programs and economic impact payments issued by the Department of the Treasury and the Internal Revenue Service.
There are also pending federal charges against 609 individuals and entities for attempting to defraud COVID-19 relief programs, GAO said.
If Biden’s proposals to increase funding to prosecute these crimes moves forward, that number will likely increase.
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