President Joe Biden’s administration is asking Congress to agree to pay more than $1.6 billion to clean up the mess of fraud against the government’s massive coronavirus pandemic aid programs.
In a strategy announced Thursday, the government called for money and more time to prosecute cases, to find new ways to prevent identity theft and to help people whose identities have been stolen.
Speaking to reporters Gene Sperling, the White House bailout coordinator, expressed hope that Congress, including the GOP-controlled House that is often hostile to the Democratic government, would see the spending as an investment.
“It’s just so clear and the evidence is so strong that a dollar spent smartly here will flow back to the taxpayer, or save at least $10,” Sperling said, pointing to chargebacks that have already taken place. Last year, the U.S. Secret Service recovered $286 million fraudulently provided through the Small Business Administration.
Sperling said the request would be part of the budget proposal Biden will submit on March 9 — but most of it will be separate from the one-year credit request. Details would need to be ironed out with Congress.
Shortly after parts of the US economy shut down after the coronavirus hit the country in 2020, Congress began to pass massive relief measures to help affected governments, businesses and individuals. Relief measures — some signed by Biden and some by his predecessor, Donald Trump — totaled nearly $6 trillion. That is more than the government spent annually before the pandemic.
The money went towards boosting unemployment insurance programs, helping people in the gig economy who lost their jobs, covering government costs and keeping businesses afloat.
“Overall, those programs have done a tremendous amount of good,” Sperling said. “There were also cases where guardrails were lowered unnecessarily, leading to unnecessary and massive fraud.”
A congressional committee found that financial technology companies were not properly screening applicants for the giant Paycheck Protection Program. Fraudulent claims for unemployment benefits overwhelmed the state’s computer systems, which sometimes struggled to identify the bogus claims, while many legitimate claims were delayed. The Department of Labor estimated there was $164 billion in improper unemployment fraud payments alone, much of it to fraudsters
Many of the scams were based on false or stolen personal information.
Biden’s plans focus on prosecution and prevention. He is asking for $600 million for prosecutions, including funds to create at least 10 new Justice Department strike forces in addition to the three already in place to go after criminal syndicates and other fraudsters. He also calls for the statute of limitations for such crimes to be increased to 10 years from the current five, allowing more time to investigate and prosecute cases.
And he calls for policy changes to ensure that the Office of the Labor Department Inspector General has ongoing access to data showing where the same identity was used to claim benefits in multiple states. That agency and other inspector general offices would share at least $300 million to hire investigators.
Biden also plans to eventually issue an executive order instructing federal agencies on how to take action against identity fraud, including modernizing government systems to prevent identity theft.
Part of the money would go toward improving a Federal Trade Commission website, IdentityTheft.gov, a place where people can report identity theft and get help.
The proposal also notes that $1.6 billion from the US bailout — the last of the major relief measures, passed in 2021 — will be made available by June to help states improve their measures against identity theft.