The Biden-Harris administration is taking new steps to combat fraud and theft of Federal pandemic relief funds, President Biden announced during his State of the Union (SOTU) address on Tuesday.

Among the actions he announced is the appointment of a Chief Prosecutor at the Department of Justice’s COVID-19 Fraud Enforcement Task Force to focus on the most egregious forms of pandemic fraud, including identity theft.

“We’re going after the criminals who stole billions in relief money meant for small businesses and millions of Americans. And tonight, I’m announcing that the Justice Department will soon name a chief prosecutor for pandemic fraud,” the president said. Members of Congress applauded the idea.

White House fact sheet explained that the new appointee would “lead teams of specialized prosecutors and agents focusing on major targets of pandemic fraud, such as those committing large-scale identity theft, including foreign-based actors.”

The outpour of pandemic relief in 2020 saw an expansion of foreign and domestic criminal syndicates, defrauding unemployment insurance and other benefits programs. Robbing “American taxpayers of billions of dollars that should have gone to support deserving small businesses and workers who had lost their jobs,” the White House said.

In addition, utilizing analytics, the teams will investigate complex fraud schemes and cases of criminal fraud in programs like the Paycheck Protection Program and unemployment insurance. However, the plan will need Congress to approve more funds and increase penalties for criminals who commit pandemic-related fraud. In his SOTU address, President Biden called on Congress to give additional resources to the task force and increase criminal penalties for pandemic-related fraud.

Biden also took aim at the Trump administration for undercutting financial watchdogs, saying the previous administration “undermined the watchdogs. The job of those it was to keep pandemic relief funds from being wasted.”

“In my administration, the watchdogs are back,” President Biden said.

Additionally, President Biden said an executive order is in the works to help agencies prevent and detect identity theft linked to COVID-19 relief programs and give more support to victims of identity theft.

The order would aim to prevent and detect identity theft involving public benefits while protecting the privacy and civil liberties and preventing bias that results in disparate outcomes. In the coming weeks, Biden will sign the new executive order helping government agencies identify theft involving public benefits and support the victims of identity fraud.

Preventing, deterring, and punishing identity theft and other forms of pandemic fraud has been an ongoing Administration-wide effort. Previously the U.S. Secret Service appointed a senior agency official to serve as the National Pandemic Fraud Recovery coordinator. The agency claimed it seized more than $1.2 billion and the return of more than $2.3 billion of fraudulently obtained funds.

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Lisbeth Perez
Lisbeth Perez
Lisbeth Perez is a MeriTalk Senior Technology Reporter covering the intersection of government and technology.