COVID fraud victims are still struggling to clear their names
25,000 people have reported identity theft, officials expect claims to grow.
A little over two years ago, Richard Loew and his wife Donna were settling into a relaxing, new stage of their life: retirement in Florida.
But then came a government-branded letter, informing them that payments were due on nearly $100,000 of COVID-19 pandemic-relief loans, called Economic Injury Disaster Loans, or EIDL.
The loans were registered to the Loews' Palm City, Florida, address. Each was for under $50,000.
One loan was under the name "Loew Farms," while the other was simply under "Donna Farms."
But Richard, a retired physician, and Donna, who works with a cat rescue nonprofit, had never taken out the loans, nor did they have a farm in their gated community on the Florida coast.
Still, the Small Business Administration continued to send letters with threats to garnish their wages and lower their credit scores.
"It's scary," Donna Loew told ABC News. "The fact that they can start taking money from us. What are we going to do? It's the government."
Richard Loew says he's taken more than 200 pages of notes over the last two years, documenting dozens of calls with SBA customer service, affidavits reporting his and his wife's identity theft with the Federal Trade Commission and local law enforcement, attempts to escalate his case to the FBI and letters written to both his local congressmen.
Still, the letters from SBA keep coming, he said.
"It makes me feel like I'm some sort of deadbeat. And the truth is, I worked hard to, you know, not be that person," Loew said.
The Loews are just two of the thousands of Americans whose stolen identities were used to wrongly obtain COVID-19 relief money as over $5 trillion was pushed out to the American public to keep a halted economy afloat.
Three years later, watchdog groups, investigators, Congress and the White House are avidly trying to claw money back and nail down exactly how much taxpayer money was stolen.
But people like the Loews have slipped through the cracks — a major part of the problem, they say, but not a focus of the solution.
"What recourse do I have?" Loew asked.
A once-in-a-century pandemic forcing a false choice: speed over security
Michael Horowitz, chairman of the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee (PRAC), a federal watchdog charged with tracking how much money was defrauded from the government during COVID, said the Loews' experience is not unusual.
A recent PRAC report found that nearly 70,000 potentially suspect Social Security numbers were used to successfully apply for EIDL or Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) funds, totaling $5.4 billion.
Yet Horowitz reiterated that the path to recourse is challenging for those tens of thousands of Americans who could've had their identities stolen.
"Unfortunately, for most on the federal level, there's very little resources available," Horowitz told ABC News.
"What we're seeing is the victims are often struggling out there to deal with these problems that were created by others, that the agencies didn't do enough to protect their identities," he said.
A major reason that those protections weren't in place, Horowitz said, was the need for speed.
"A decision was made at the outset of the pandemic. Speed was the key. We're going to send the money out. We're not going to vet people," Horowitz said.
The thinking was that "you investigators, you'll go catch it later, go chase the fraud later. We just want to get the money out," he said. "That was a bad choice. It was the wrong choice. It never should have happened."
Those holes in the programs have also been documented by the inspector general for the SBA, the independent watchdog with oversight of the department, who says accounting for the fraud will continue to dog the SBA into 2023.
"I believe managing COVID-19 stimulus lending is the greatest overall challenge facing SBA, and it may likely continue to be for many years as the agency grapples with fraud in the programs," Inspector General Hannibal Ware said in a report.
Ware noted that SBA faced unprecedented demand in 2020, processing the same amount of loans it had in the last 14 years in just 14 days. It also expanded its staff by 10 times.
Still, a review of several reports from the SBA inspector general reveals how the agency "lowered guardrails" to handle the tidal wave of pandemic relief loans in ways that "significantly increased the risk of fraud."
And in a 2021 report, Ware also cited the specific issue facing the Loews: "At the time of our review, we found SBA did not provide status updates to those reporting COVID-19 EIDL identity theft," Ware wrote.
"These individuals have been waiting a long time, some of them for months, for a resolution on potentially fraudulent loans in their names that could negatively affect their ability to obtain credit," he wrote, citing 18 interviews with prospective identity theft victims.
The SBA did eventually implement a reporting process for identity theft within their programs, setting up a central email address in February 2021 where people with claims could send a set of forms outlined at sba.gov/fraud, under a section called "Report identity theft to SBA."
About 25,000 people have reached out to report identity theft to the email address, the SBA told ABC News. Of those cases, 8,000 claims have been processed and cleared by the SBA so far, with another 5,000 still under review.
The SBA also said it's tried to reach out to thousands more people who could be victims of identity theft but haven't fully completed the reporting process or who might not know that their information was used for a loan.
In a statement, the department said it "has dramatically improved its technology and expanded its staff capacity" since early in the pandemic, and is "committed to assisting people and providing expeditious relief to victims of identity theft."
The Loews, however, said they've followed that process outlined by the SBA, but to no avail. And their experience, over two years later, shows how complicated it can be to get relief.
Despite all of his efforts, in a phone call in mid-March shared with ABC News, an SBA customer service center loan agent told Loew his case remained under investigation, and they received another letter in the mail as recently as late February demanding repayment.
The SBA, in response to inquiries into Loew's case from ABC News, initially said that it couldn't confirm or deny any cases of potential identity fraud due to long standing policy. But on Monday evening, an official followed up to say that they had reached out to the Loews.
From 'lowered guardrails' to 'reforms'
The SBA also told ABC News that "additional reforms" to get relief for identity theft victims within the SBA's programs are still in the process, including using multi-factor authentication and a new process to pause billing once someone has reported identity theft, SBA spokesperson Christina Carr said in a statement.
Much of those reforms will be guided by an expected executive order from President Joe Biden, who pledged over a year ago to sign an order in the "coming weeks" that would direct "new actions to support the victims of identity fraud."
Administration officials told ABC News that the action is still expected to come soon, though they didn't provide concrete timing.
Biden also recently called on Congress to approve $1.6 billion to crack down on fraud, including $300 million to triple the "strike forces" within the Department of Justice investigating COVID relief fraud and $400 million to help victims.
Those efforts show the pandemic has been a wake-up call, Horowitz said.
"We're going to keep putting out reports about this and our hope is that Congress and the executive branch take the actions that are desperately needed to fix these problems," he said.
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