Palo Alto, California, resident Brian Hamachek was looking over a government website listing payouts for the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) last year. He immediately noted many businesses listed either didn't exist or greatly exaggerated their number of employees.
He said he recognized fraud that an investigator in Washington would have no way of knowing, "such as, a restaurant that went out of business a couple of months before they got their loan, and they've never come back."
Hamachek is a software engineer. He designed a website to help others identify PPP fraudsters. A user entering a state and town can see local businesses that got loans.
"And then, they can also see the Google Street View of that business … how many employees … and they can see the average salary," he said.
In 2020, Congress and President Trump approved $953 billion for the program, designed to keep workers employed during the pandemic. So far, the Justice Department has opened more than 140 cases of fraud totaling millions of dollars, including a Minnesota man who claimed to have 28 employees when he had none, a Maryland pastor who bought luxury cars and a Florida family who bought a $3 million home.
Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste, blames poor planning and lack of oversight from the government for the widespread abuse.
"People take advantage of government money," said Schatz.
The U.S. has given out over $11 million in PPP loans.
"The federal government has never been set up to track money very well, and with the unprecedented amount of money in the COVID relief bills, more than ever is going to be wasted," Schatz added.
Supporters of the program say it saved regular jobs when the country was desperate. Hamachek feels it's up to good Samaritans to "expose" anyone who took advantage of a desperate situation if Washington can't keep track of government funds.
"Since it's all of our money, it's all of our responsibility," said Hamacheck, a responsibility he said he has now made simpler to fulfill.