Home / How Pandemic Aid Attracted Hordes of Gleeful and Gutsy Scammers

How Pandemic Aid Attracted Hordes of Gleeful and Gutsy Scammers

Some of the fraud won’t come to light until the middle or end of next year, when most borrowers will reach their deadline to seek forgiveness or start repaying the money. Many scammers will simply default; others may be caught when they file a forgiveness application that is reviewed by both the lender and the government.

The Treasury Department pledged to audit all loans over $2 million, and late last month, the Small Business Administration released a questionnaire asking recipients of loans of that size about their 2020 revenue and other questions that seemed aimed at figuring out whether the businesses suffered financial harm because of the pandemic.

Chris Ferris, the chief executive officer of Fidelity Bank, a community bank in New Orleans, said that its smaller loans were mostly flying through the forgiveness process but that none over $2 million had yet been approved. An executive at a community bank in the Midwest, who asked for anonymity to discuss his clients’ accounts, said that none of the nine forgiveness applications that his bank had sent in for loans of $2 million or more had been approved yet, and that the Small Business Administration had asked for additional information on seven of them.

In theory, the government’s guidance on determining eligibility means lenders won’t be penalized for not detecting fraud. But the increased scrutiny has made some nervous that they could be on the hook for bad loans. The Small Business Administration has leeway in deciding which loans it will pay off, and that could leave lenders in the lurch.

“We’re concerned that we’re going to get stuck and have trouble getting our money back from the government on some loans,” said Ira Robbins, the chief executive of Valley National Bank, which made nearly 13,000 loans.

Concerns about fraud and waste have shadowed talks in Congress about reviving the Paycheck Protection Program. As challenging as the program was, many bankers said they would like to see it restarted so devastated businesses like restaurants and entertainment venues could get a second round of help.

“There’s more fraud associated with unemployment payments, and no one is talking about closing the unemployment program,” Mr. Robbins said. “There’s a huge need for more stimulus, and over all, I think the government did a really good job in the speed with which they got this aid out.”

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