By Kanishka Singh
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Justice Department said on Wednesday it has seized over $1.4 billion in COVID-19 relief funds that criminals had stolen, and charged over 3,000 defendants with crimes in federal districts across the country.
The Justice Department disclosed the results of a nationwide enforcement action to combat coronavirus fraud, including federal criminal charges against 371 defendants for offenses related to over $836 million in alleged COVID fraud.
"This latest action, involving over 300 defendants and over $830 million in alleged COVID-19 fraud, should send a clear message: the COVID-19 public health emergency may have ended, but the Justice Department's work to identify and prosecute those who stole pandemic relief funds is far from over," U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a statement.
A total of 119 defendants pleaded guilty or were convicted at trial during the sweep, according to the Justice Department.
The United States is probing many fraud cases pegged to U.S. government assistance programs. In May 2021, Garland launched a COVID fraud enforcement task force.
Last year, the U.S. Justice Department tapped federal prosecutor Kevin Chambers to lead its efforts to investigate alleged fraud schemes targeting pandemic assistance programs.
Over $200 billion from the U.S. government's COVID-19 relief programs were potentially stolen, a federal watchdog said in late June, adding that the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) had weakened its controls in a rush to disburse the funds.
In September 2022, the inspector general for the U.S. Labor Department said fraudsters likely stole $45.6 billion from the United States' unemployment insurance program during the coronavirus outbreak by applying tactics like using Social Security numbers of deceased individuals.
Earlier this year, a separate watchdog report said the U.S. government likely awarded about $5.4 billion in COVID-19 aid to people with questionable Social Security numbers.
(Reporting by Kanishka Singh in Washington; Editing by Stephen Coates)