LAKELAND, Fla. (WFLA) – Ken Thompson owns a Lakeland land survey business, but paperwork for the government disaster loan he never applied for was sent to his home.
“I was suspicious,” Thompson said.
Getting some sort of confirmation from the Small Business Administration (SBA) that the $7,500 disaster loan would not hurt his credit proved difficult.
“I got the invoice in December,” Thompson said. “But I couldn’t get anybody to respond about what I needed to do.”
Thompson is one of the dozens of Tampa Bay area residents whose personal information was used to secure Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDL) in a nationwide scheme that the SBA inspector general indicated could involve billions in fraud.
An OIG report expressed concerns about more than $78 billion in loans from the $190 billion dollar program.
An unpaid $7,500 could be enough to skew anyone’s debt to income ratio, but an 8 On Your Side investigation revealed that amount is small compared to other local cases that include fraudulent loans as high as $150,000.
As the victims tried to untangle the loans from their credit history, Eight on Your Side sent their names and addresses to Representative Gus Bilirakis and a number of SBA employees.
About a week later, several reported they were “finally” contacted by both Bilirakis and the SBA.
“Before that, the attitude was, ‘Leave a message. We’ll get back to you.’ But they don’t get back to you,” Thompson said. “It seemed like you were getting something done, I couldn’t get done. I’m optimistic at least they’re going to look into it. Finally, they got back to me.”
The son of South Tampa retiree William Dreyer – on the hook for a $10,000 loan for a phony farm supposedly growing on his 10,000 square foot lot – is also optimistic he can help his father clear the loan.
But Rick Dreyer, an out-of-state doctor, said his father’s case has some complications.
“We got a lot of paperwork to do here. He’s 85-years old, without internet,” Dreyer said. “And there are privacy issues that won’t allow me to do it. I’ve got to help him get out of this mess.”
This week, the House Small Business Committee approved $50 billion in emergency pandemic aid for small businesses, and Bilirakis said several members of congress are putting pressure on the SBA to tighten its process to prevent fraud.
“We don’t want to slow the process for legitimate businesses that need help,” Bilirakis said. “There’s going to be legislation. And we want to make sure that it’s a priority. Some people make mistakes but what’s going on here is unacceptable.”
Thompson put it another way.
“If I ran this business the way the government runs Washington, I’d go broke,” Thompson said.
One unknown is how hard the fraud has hit local residents.
8 On Your Side extracted all the Florida-based loans from an SBA spreadsheet of more than three million loans from across the country.
After isolating the Tampa-based transactions from the list, another search found dozens of loans to farms. Several of those businesses were not registered with the Florida Division of Corporations, and further searches and emails from other victims pushed the total alleged fraud north of a million in Tampa alone.
The SBA has not commented on the overall potential total in Tampa Bay.