Nearly $100B Stolen From COVID-19 Relief Programs, Mostly in Unemployment Funds

The U.S. Secret Service said Tuesday that almost $100 billion, largely unemployment benefit money, has been stolen from $3.4 trillion of COVID-19 relief funds.

Roy Dotson, the Secret Service's national pandemic fraud recovery coordinator, told the Associated Press that even though this is only about 3 percent of the relief funds, it still shows "the sheer size of the pot is enticing to the criminals."

This estimated $100 billion comes from data from the Labor Department and the Small Business Administration, as well as Secret Service cases.

The majority of the $100 billion comes from unemployment fraud. According to estimates from the Labor Department, a large portion of the estimated $87 billion of improperly paid unemployment funds can be connected to fraud.

The Secret Service currently has over 900 active pandemic fraud investigations, including pandemic benefits programs as well as other related benefits programs. The agency has arrested over 100 people in connection to these criminal investigations.

The government agency has also been working to reverse fraudulent transactions, already returning about $2.3 billion. In its investigations, it has seized about $1.2 billion in funds.

"Every state has been hit, some harder than others," Dotson said in a news release. "The Secret Service is hitting the ground running, trying to recover everything we can, including funds stolen from both federal and state programs."

unemployment benefits, Virginia
The Secret Service said it has seized more than $1.2 billion while investigating unemployment insurance and loan fraud and has returned more than $2.3 billion of fraudulently obtained funds by working with financial partners and states to reverse transactions. Above, web pages used to show information for collecting unemployment insurance in Virginia, right, and reporting fraud and identity theft in Pennsylvania are displayed on the respective state web pages on Febuary 26 in Zelienople, Pennsylvania. Keith Srakocic, File/AP Photo

The Justice Department said last week that its fraud section had prosecuted over 150 defendants in more than 95 criminal cases and had seized over $75 million in cash proceeds derived from fraudulently obtained Paycheck Protection Program funds, as well as numerous real estate properties and luxury items purchased with the proceeds.

One of the best-known programs created through the March 2020 CARES Act, PPP offered low-interest, forgivable loans to small businesses struggling to meet payroll and other expenses during pandemic-related shutdowns.

Law enforcement early in the pandemic focused on fraud related to personal protective equipment, the Secret Service said. Authorities have now prioritized the exploitation of pandemic-related relief because the federal funding through the CARES Act attracted the attention of individuals and organized criminal networks worldwide.

"Can we stop fraud? Will we? No, but I think we can definitely prosecute those that need to be prosecuted and we can do our best to recover as much fraudulent pandemic funds that we can," said Dotson, who is the Secret Service's assistant special agent in charge of the agency's field office in Jacksonville, Florida.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

job fair, unemployment, California
The Secret Service reported almost $100 billion has been stolen from COVID-19 relief programs across the United States. Above, people receive information as they attend a job fair at SoFi Stadium on September 9 in Inglewood, California. Photo by Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images