SAN ANTONIO, Fla. (WFLA) – The first bill for the $23,000 disaster loan Darlene Pierson never applied for came last October. And it’s hung over her head ever since.
“Every day,” she said when asked how often she thought about the fraud. “Yes, I wanted it gone.”
When the latest letter from the Small Business Administration (SBA) arrived at the Pierson’s Pasco County Home, she thought it was another bill.
But this time, a surprise with the letter reading, “We are taking action to disassociate this loan from your identity.”
“It was government-speak,” her husband Mike said. “The good thing is if anyone ever comes after us we have that.”
The Piersons are one of several Tampa Bay identity theft victims whose contact information was sent to the SBA and Congressman Gus Bilirakis by 8 On Your Side to help them clear their names from the bogus loans.
Mike Pierson said the first time the SBA contacted them about the loan happened right after News Channel 8’s aired in February.
“Without any help, this would be continuing for ions,” he said. “So the confidence level in the system was — no. I’m glad you got involved.”
After a seven month wait, his wife remained a bit skeptical, even with the SBA letter in hand.
“I’m just hoping that it’s real,” she said.
The more than two dozen bad loans discovered from an 8 On Your Side data dig totaled about $600,000.
There’s little doubt the local fraud cases are the tip of a very large iceberg since $1 billion worth of Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDL) have been flagged for possible fraud while more schemes are suspected in the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP).
The disaster loan program, geared to help actual businesses instead of lining criminals’ pockets, was strengthened this year with fraud safeguards, according to the SBA.
But in March, PPP loans and EIDL made the Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) “High Risk List”, with the GAO reporting the programs are still “vulnerable to exploitation.”
Also in March, during a U.S. House subcommittee about rooting out fraud in SBA relief programs, SBA Inspector General Mike Ware told lawmakers the agency was warned about the possibility of fraud last year and offered controls to combat the problem.
“We thought the things we were asking to be done if implemented correctly would not slow the program down at all,” Ware said during the virtual hearing.
Aside from the millions lost and the millions more now chased by federal investigators, the Piersons are relieved their slate is now apparently clean.
“Oh yeah,” Mike said. “Thank you very much and hopefully people will see this and go through the steps to get some help.”
Over the past year, PPP and EIDL have combined to loan nearly one trillion dollars and federal investigators say they continue to look for fraud in the process.