The Secret Service said Monday that hackers linked to the Chinese government stole at least $20 million in Covid relief aid, NBC News reports.
Hackers stole millions from multiple programs, including the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection loans and unemployment insurance, in over a dozen states, according to the Secret Service.
The hack by the group APT41 is the first known instance of foreign, state-sponsored pandemic fraud that the government has publicly acknowledged — though law enforcement officials say it may just be the tip of the iceberg.
“It would be crazy to think this group didn’t target all 50 states,” Roy Dotson, national pandemic fraud recovery coordinator for the Secret Service, told NBC News.
The agency did not provide the scope of pandemic fraud it is investigating but said there are more than 1,000 investigations into pandemic fraud and APT41 is a “notable player,” even as it’s unclear whether they were directed by the Chinese government.
“I’ve never seen them target government money before,” John Hultquist, the head of intelligence analysis at the cybersecurity firm Mandiant, said of China in an interview with NBC. “That would be an escalation.”
The Labor Department’s Inspector General said that about 20% of the $872 billion in pandemic unemployment funds were doled out improperly, though administration officials say the scope is likely much larger.
The IG reported that more than 42% of pandemic benefits in four states were paid improperly during the first six months of the program.
A Heritage Foundation analysis estimated that more than $350 billion in unemployment benefits were paid out improperly.
“Whether it’s 350, 400 or 500 billion, at this point, the horse is out of the barn,” Linda Miller, the former deputy executive director of the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, the federal government’s Covid relief fraud watchdog, told NBC News.