ATLANTA — When COVID-19 hit, jobs tanked, small businesses collapsed, families suffered, and millions of paychecks disappeared.
As dollars started flowing out in COVID related Paycheck Protection loans (PPP), and unemployment benefits to rescue struggling businesses and help those who lost jobs, millions of dollars ended up the hands of fraudsters and scammers.
At the forefront of hunting them down is the Atlanta bureau of the U.S. Secret Service, charged with protecting the nation's financial system.
"This type of fraud is a very high priority for our Agency and in our office we have approximately 15 to 20 agents investigating this on a full time basis, then we can tap into an additional 20 to 30 agents when needed," Special Agent Steven Baisel, who heads the Atlanta bureau, said.
Yet, the big question is how did all of this financial fraud gain momentum?
According to the Secret Service, it was electronic filing.
"Electronic cyberspace is the key as to how fast fraud has been able to take off," Baisel said, adding that the priority was getting the money out quickly to those in need.
"The programs were not set up to verify identification, and a lot of things happened so quickly that they thought they had it under control and oversight but that was just not there," he continued.
Take the case of Kadeidra Ra'Shawon White. The Secret Service said she electronically filed false unemployment benefit claims using stolen identifies while operating from her home in Clarkston. In one month, the Secret Service said she netted over $1 million.
They also claimed she bought a new car and spent almost half of the money before she was arrested, convicted and sentenced to federal prison, where White is now serving her sentence.
Since the onset of COVID, the Secret Service has cornered 13 people, recovering more than $3.6 million in loan money.
They explained 10 more suspects have been taken into custody in unemployment benefit fraud, with another $500,000 recovered and 40 additional cases are pending, with much of that stolen money already recovered.
For the Secret Service, the hunt goes on.
For fraudsters and scammers who have stolen millions in tax money, once the Secret Service and other agencies catch up to them, there is only one big house they will be headed toward. It's the U.S Penitentiary, just like the one in metro Atlanta.