Over $200 Billion in COVID-19 Small Business Loans Have Been Exhausted: US Govt. Watchdog

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The United States has incurred a shocking loss of over $200 billion due to fraudulent activities targeting small businesses during the Covid-19 crisis, according to a recent report by a US government watchdog. The report by the Small Business Administration's Office of Inspector General (OIG) uncovered numerous schemes devised by fraudsters to exploit pandemic relief programs and divert funds meant to assist those in need.

Specifically, the report identified two programs, namely the Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) and the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), as avenues through which potentially fraudulent loans were disbursed. The OIG report, released on Tuesday, highlighted the disbursement of over $200 billion in potentially fraudulent Covid-19 loans, including EIDLs, EIDL Targeted Advances, Supplemental Targeted Advances, and PPP loans.

This revelation indicates that at least 17% of the total funds allocated to Covid-19 EIDL and PPP programs were distributed to deceitful entities, severely undermining the intended purpose of these crucial initiatives. The US government had allocated an estimated $4.6 trillion for pandemic response and recovery efforts, with approximately $90.5 billion of that amount remaining unspent as of January 2023.

Thanks to extensive oversight and investigative efforts, the OIG's work has resulted in over 1,000 indictments and 529 convictions related to Covid-19 fraud. Additionally, nearly $30 billion in Covid-19 EIDL and PPP funds have been seized or returned to the Small Business Administration.

This recent report highlights the disheartening reality that scammers may have received as much as $200 billion, equivalent to 17% of the emergency federal aid disbursed to small businesses during the pandemic. The Office of Inspector General of the Small Business Administration, responsible for overseeing the distribution of these funds, conducted a comprehensive evaluation, exposing the vulnerability of the system to exploitation by fraudulent applicants seeking to benefit from non-existent businesses at the expense of taxpayers.

According to the report, the urgency in making funds available inadvertently weakened or removed essential controls, making it alarmingly effortless for fraudsters to gain access to these programs and exploit the absence of adequate safeguards. The lure of quick gains attracted a swarm of fraudsters who capitalized on the relaxed environment.

The $200 billion estimate was attributed to advanced data analytics applied to the Small Business Administration's pandemic-related disbursement data. These findings raise significant questions about the effectiveness of emergency measures, such as the PPP loans, which were implemented to address the economic crisis caused by pandemic-induced shutdowns in 2020.

While officials argued that the urgency of the situation justified swift action, experts contend that the data analysis performed for this report demonstrates that tighter controls could have been implemented in real-time to mitigate the risk of fraud. Sam Kruger, an assistant professor of finance at the University of Texas, stressed that the analytical approach employed by the Office of Inspector General indicates that the government possessed the capability to enhance the system's integrity during the disbursement process.

The current administration of the Small Business Administration estimates that approximately 90% of the potential fraud occurred in 2020, within the first nine months of the pandemic. They claim that since then, measures have been taken to implement real-time anti-fraud checks, reducing the likelihood of fraudulent activities. Katie Frost, Deputy Associate Administrator in the Office of Capital Access at SBA, affirmed the institution's efforts in tightening control frameworks, citing improved scrutiny of discrepancies between names and employer identification numbers.

However, there remains a significant discrepancy between the Inspector General's estimation of potential fraud and the SBA's assessment of likely fraud after thorough investigations. Gene Sperling, senior advisor to the President and White House Coordinator for the American Rescue Plan, compared potential fraud to a metal detector going off, emphasizing the need for further investigation to differentiate genuine cases from false alarms.

The SBA's estimation of likely fraud stands at approximately $36 billion, significantly less than the Inspector General's estimate. Although the reduction is commendable, Sperling maintains that the amount is still unacceptably high. Nevertheless, the report reveals that efforts are underway to recover some of the misappropriated funds, with a considerable number of indictments, arrests, and convictions related to Covid-19 EIDL and PPP fraud. As of May 2023, the government has successfully seized or reclaimed "nearly $30 billion" in aid.

The massive scale of this fraud serves as a grim reminder of the vulnerabilities inherent in crisis response programs. As the SBA and federal investigators continue to address the situation, it is evident that more stringent measures will be necessary to safeguard against exploitation and ensure that future relief efforts reach deserving recipients as intended.

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