How South Florida Became a Hotspot for Pandemic Relief Fraud – NBC 6 South Florida
There’s the former NFL player who took $1.2 million from the Paycheck Protection Program. He is currently serving more than three years in prison.
The South Florida entertainer who used some of the money he received from the program to buy a Ferrari – what he called his company car. He is serving 20 months in prison for this.
And the 27-year-old who is awaiting trial after being accused of using money from PPP loans worth more than $2 million to buy a Lamborghini, a Rolex and designer clothes. He pleaded not guilty.
These are some of the cases law enforcement has filed under the Paycheck Protection Program, which was designed to get money quickly into the hands of struggling business owners in the worst of the pandemic.
But the scheme, which ended in May 2021, was also popular with fraudsters, with billions of dollars sent to people and businesses who weren’t eligible for the amounts they received or any loans. at all, according to a 2021 Small Business Administration Inspector General Report.
“We prosecute more fraud cases, especially Cares Act cases, than anyone else in the country,” said Juan Antonio Gonzalez, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida.
As the top federal law enforcement official in South Florida, Gonzalez has seen more than his fair share of PPP fraud.
“We are targeting them very aggressively. When you deal with the first case, it’s hard, do the second case, a little easier and over time more cases and before you know it, you have a very solid practice in prosecuting Cares Act fraud cases “said Gonzalez.
A recent NBC 6 investigation found that $1.2 million was paid out over 24 days to businesses that may not have qualified for the loans.
Gonzalez wouldn’t comment on our investigation but wasn’t surprised at what we found. Just four months after the Cares Act was passed, his office was recording the first arrests.
“It’s easy,” Gonzalez said. “You just fill out a piece of paper and put it in the mail and the money just shows up in your bank account.”
Crimes are also easy to catch.
“There’s a paper trail,” Gonzalez said. “For me, drug cases are like a footprint in the sand on the beach, a wave passes and carries it away. Fraud cases like this leave a solid paper trail. They are more like footprints in the concrete.
A Secret Service agent told NBC 6 he had seen estimates that up to $76 billion may have been paid in fraudulent loans. The Secret Service, he said, had 900 active investigations, seized $1.2 billion worth of fraudulent proceeds and returned nearly double that amount to banks before fraudsters could gain access.
Gonzalez said people flying should look over their shoulders for a long time.
“Well, unlike most crimes which have a shorter statute of limitations, these bank fraud cases have a statute of limitations of 10 years. So you can commit the crime and nine and a half years later you end up arrested for it,” Gonzalez said.
While they might face 20 or 30 years, the range here is two to seven years.
And once they’re caught, they can’t keep what they stole.
“They can’t keep the Lamborghinis. They cannot keep their homes. They can’t keep any of their ill-gotten gains,” Gonzalez said.
According to Gonzalez, $23 million has already been seized by the federal government in the Southern District of Florida alone. He promises there will be more to come.
“The government needs to get the money into the hands of the public as quickly as possible and the faster the money comes out the less safeguards are put in place so we are left with playing catch up trying to bring in that money which is not shouldn’t have come out in the first place,” he said.