The U.S. Secret Service has prevented roughly $1 billion in coronavirus fraud losses while initiating more than 100 criminal investigations during the pandemic, a senior official said this week.
The agency and its partners successfully disrupted numerous schemes that attempted to defraud U.S government programs aimed at helping U.S. individuals and businesses who are struggling economically during the outbreak, Secret Service Assistant Director Michael D’Ambrosio told the Senate Judiciary Committee during a hearing Tuesday on Capitol Hill.
"As the pandemic continued and intensified, we have observed a proliferation and diversification of criminal schemes, particularly an increase in targeting various economic relief programs, such as those provided by the CARES Act," D'Ambrosio said. "Countering this fraud has become a core focus of our investigative work, and I expect our investigative efforts to recover stolen assets and hold criminals accountable will continue for years."
"We have observed a proliferation and diversification of criminal schemes, particularly an increase in targeting various economic relief programs, such as those provided by the CARES Act."
The Secret Service put out its first alert highlighting the scams back in March, warning of "phishing" campaigns related to the coronavirus being sent to emails. Such scams could result in people revealing personal information, such as passwords and credit card numbers.
"Over the subsequent weeks, the crimes exploiting the pandemic began to diversify and substantially increase," D'Ambrosio added.
On Tuesday, he said those crimes included the sale of fraudulent medical equipment, cybercrime, ransomware attacks that could disrupt certain pandemic responses, and defrauding of government and financial institutions associated with "response and recovery efforts."
He said the last type of fraud would be of particular interest to the committee, adding it's an area where authorities were "devoting extraordinary investigative effort to addressing."
D'Ambrosio added that fraud related to the $3 trillion appropriated by Congress to support the American economy -- described as the largest-ever economic stimulus package in U.S. history -- was possibly the most troubling development.
"It is despicable that some seek to engage in fraud against U.S. government programs that aim to brunt COVID-19-induced economic harms. This includes fraud against unemployment benefits, Economic Impact Payments (EIPs), Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) funds, and other CARES Act initiatives," D'Ambrosio said.
"Even if we assume a very low rate of fraud, of just 1 percent, we should still expect more than $30 billion will end up in the hands of criminals," he added.
"Even if we assume a very low rate of fraud, of just 1 percent, we should still expect more than $30 billion will end up in the hands of criminals."
D'Ambrosio said the Secret Service also successfully disrupted hundreds of online coronavirus-related scams and halted the alleged "illicit" sale of stolen COVID-19 test kits online. The agency is also taking part in a nationwide effort to stop an international scheme aimed at defrauding U.S. state unemployment systems.
"Longer-term, we will work to ensure that those who have criminally exploited this crisis are arrested and successfully prosecuted," he said.