July 24, 2024

A task force combating COVID-19 fraud, led in part by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Florida in Tampa, revealed it indicted over 21 individuals in the past year. These people reportedly tried to fraudulently claim more than $15 million in federal relief money.

The charges raise the total local fraud cases to 77, with cumulative fraudulent claims amounting to $85 million. Defendants in these cases purportedly tried to dupe the federal government into releasing relief funds meant for individuals impacted by the pandemic.

So far, 56 individuals have been convicted, while 21 others are still awaiting trial. In addition to these criminal proceedings, the Attorney’s Office’s asset recovery branch and other organizations have finished confiscating over $20 million in fraudulently obtained funds. They also seized more than $18 million in unlawful proceeds, currently awaiting civil or criminal forfeiture.

The U.S. Attorney’s office disclosed these statistics on Wednesday, reflecting the ongoing efforts of the COVID-19 Fraud Enforcement Task Force. This collaboration involves the district’s criminal, asset recovery, appellate, and civil divisions, along with federal, state, and local police agencies.

The task force’s role is to identify, charge, and convict fraudsters and reclaim misappropriated funds intended for businesses and individuals during the pandemic. Sources of these funds include the Paycheck Protection Program, Economic Injury Disaster Loans, Main Street Lending Program, Unemployment Insurance, and more.

Notable cases include Denis Casseus, 44-year-old resident of Cape Coral, who was sentenced to two years in prison in October for a PPP loan scam that allegedly secured nearly $300,000. Plus, 37-year-old Ukrainian Vitalii Chychaso, sentenced to eight years in prison by a Tampa court in November, managing websites that sold personal data belonging to US citizens. Chychaso was arrested while trying to enter Hungary in March 2022 and was extradited several months later.

The case list in the district, as presented by the prosecutors, spans ten pages. The fraud instances vary from as little as $18,000 to as much as $10.7 million.

In a news release, U.S. Attorney Roger Handberg announced his office’s progress, stating that his team continues to track, investigate, indict, and recover funds from those individuals involved in major or complex fraud schemes. These schemes aimed to steal benefits intended for Americans grappling with the pandemic’s effects.

During a 2022 interview with the Business Observer, Handberg confessed that the crimes he witnessed sometimes made him angry, given the noble intention of the programs these fraudsters exploited.

The Middle District, one of Florida’s three judicial districts, covers Naples north to Ocala, east across Orlando, and north again to Jacksonville. The other two federal districts are in Tallahassee and Miami.

Frequently Asked Questions Related to the Topic

What is the COVID-19 Fraud Enforcement Task Force?

This is a collective operation consisting of the District’s Attorney Office’s criminal, asset recovery, appellate, and civil divisions, plus federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies. The task force’s aim is to detect, prosecute, and convict perpetrators committing fraud and to recoup funds wrongly acquired and meant to help people and businesses during the pandemic.

How many COVID-19 related fraud cases have there been in the Middle District of Florida?

The Middle District of Florida, led by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, has prosecuted 77 cases related to COVID-19 fraud. The cumulative fraudulent claims in these cases are reported to sum to $85 million.

What kinds of programs were exploited by these fraudulent claims?

According to reports, the fraudsters targeted several federal relief schemes. Among them were the Paycheck Protection Program, Economic Injury Disaster Loans, the Main Street Lending Program, Unemployment Insurance, and more. These programs were meant to help individuals and businesses affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.