WASHINGTON — The Biden administration announced a series of measures on Thursday to detect and punish fraudsters who defrauded billions of tax dollars intended to help Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Biden pledges $1.6 billion to bolster law enforcement manpower and develop new programs that will be used to prosecute scammers, prevent fraud and provide assistance to victims of identity theft.
“We don’t just want to catch them and get their money, we want to send a signal to them that you can run, but you can’t hide,” said Gene Sperling, a senior adviser to Biden overseeing the implementation of the COVID assistance. plan.
The government’s plans call for the creation of 10 Justice Department “strike troops,” including U.S. attorneys and other law enforcement officials, to investigate COVID aid fraud and recover stolen taxpayers’ money. The teams target criminal syndicates and other major fraudsters. Three military forces are already on the scene and have recovered millions of dollars in stolen aid funds, officials said.
The administration will also propose increasing the statute of limitations to 10 years for fraud related to the pandemic unemployment insurance program, which has been hit particularly hard by scammers.
About $300 million will be distributed to inspectors general from the Small Business Administration, the Department of Labor and the staff of the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, a government watchdog over pandemic spending. The money would be used to hire investigators and ensure they have the resources needed to prosecute specialized cases of pandemic fraud.
In his proposed budget to be released next week, Biden will offer a package of legislative reforms to prevent, detect and recover improper payments through the unemployment insurance program.
Federal grants would be made to states to help modernize their information technology systems so they can respond more quickly to fraud, reduce erroneous payments, and make claims processing more efficient.
New initiatives would also be launched to identify victims of identity theft, including an early warning system to stop potentially fraudulent transactions before they happen and a central window to report identity crimes.
Why it matters
The federal government distributed more than $5 trillion in pandemic relief under programs approved by Biden and former President Donald Trump. The money was distributed quickly, leading to an increase in fraud and other improper payments, such as payments that should not have been made or were made with the wrong amount.
The Government Accountability Office reported last month that the extent of the fraud in COVID assistance programs is not yet known, but the unemployment insurance program alone was reported to have made more than $60 billion in fraudulent payments.
From March 2020 to last January, at least 1,044 people pleaded guilty or were convicted of defrauding COVID utilities, the GAO report said. Federal charges were pending against an additional 609 individuals or entities for attempted defrauding of COVID utilities.
Also, the federal government gave $5.4 billion in COVID aid to small businesses with “questionable” Social Security numbers, the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee reported in January. The watchdog identified nearly 70,000 questionable Social Security numbers used to obtain pandemic relief from two Small Business Administration programs.
The Republican-led House Committee on Oversight and Accountability Committee has opened an investigation into fraud in COVID utilities. The commission held its first hearing on the subject last month.
However, Sperling said the administration’s anti-fraud package is not a direct response to the GOP investigations. Most of the proposals were prepared before last November’s elections, he said.
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Michael Collins covers the White House. Follow him on Twitter @mcollinsNEWS.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID-19: Biden Targets Pandemic Relief Fraudsters