En español | A 73-year-old Chicago man awarded a Purple Heart for combat injuries in Vietnam says he fell victim to two con artists, who walked away with his cash and enough personal information to put him in jeopardy of future financial crimes.
Kenneth tells AARP that two women approached him last month boasting they could get him a $10,000 grant — money purportedly available because of the COVID-19 pandemic. (His full name is not being published to protect his privacy.)
He says one of the women, who is in her 60s, resides in Kenneth's 18-unit apartment building on the South Side. The sidekick was her friend, a woman in her 30s whom he'd never met before July 11, when the grant application supposedly was made.
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Kenneth, who is divorced, is a retired painter for the City of Chicago. His finances are secure thanks to a pension, Social Security and Veterans Affairs benefits.
Perilous duty in Vietnam
He says that he served with the Army's 7th Cavalry Regiment. A sergeant, he was a radioman and spent 13 months in country from 1967 to 1968. At times, he says, he rappelled from a helicopter into tall elephant grass to face the Vietcong.
One day a 122-millimeter rocket hit a communications bunker, instantly killing the soldier next to him. Kenneth survived but his ear drums were perforated, leading to permanent hearing loss. He recuperated on a Navy hospital ship and soon was back in the fight despite the injuries, which led to his Purple Heart. “I still have combat flashbacks,” he says.
Friend was a ‘moocher'
According to Kenneth, the older woman who he says scammed him had been a friend. Sometimes he lent her $20 for gas; once he gave her $70. Eventually, she'd pay him back. “She was never able to keep a job very long,” he says. “She has a moocher mentality."
He says he once spent $100 to buy groceries for her at Walmart. When he cooked, he'd occasionally give her a plate of food; one Thanksgiving he gave her enough turkey and sides to last a week.
As for the $10,000 grant, his friend said her younger associate could get him the money in two days.
'Tempted by greed'
"I said, ‘Sure. Why not? What do I have to lose?'” he recalls. “Ten thousand dollars sounded like free money, so I guess I was tempted by greed."
The three met in his friend's apartment on July 11, when he says he gave them $600 for a “processing fee.” Kenneth says they took down his Social Security number and checking account and bank-routing numbers. He also let them take a photo of his Illinois driver's license, which lists his address and date of birth.
For identity thieves, that is like striking gold.
Grant goes awry
As the younger woman typed at the older woman's laptop, she talked about trouble with a website, says Kenneth, who does not use a computer.
"I really didn't know what they were talking about,” he says. “They seemed to be in tune, and I seemed to be out of sync with whatever it was."
The women did not respond to AARP's requests for comment.
'Pervasive’ fraud in SBA loan program
Across the U.S., officials have warned about fraudsters peddling phony relief benefits that purportedly have arisen due to COVID-19. The pandemic and economic fallout have unleashed nearly $3 trillion in U.S. aid.
Yet in Kenneth's case, signs point to a real program: a Small Business Administration (SBA) loan program that a government watchdog in a July 28 report singled out for “pervasive fraudulent activity.” Potential fraud losses are nearly $300 million, the report said. Some money went to ineligible recipients; other dollars to bankroll potentially duplicate loans.
At issue is the SBA's Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) program, which loans tax dollars to small businesses to cover fixed debts, payroll, accounts payable and other specified bills.
Notably, applicants could get a $10,000 advance even if their loan ultimately was not approved. Assuming there was no fraud, there was no requirement to repay the $10,000.
'It's a feeding frenzy'
In a story on July 15, the Washington Post reported numerous suspicious SBA loan requests in Chicago from apartment dwellers claiming to be growing crops, repairing autos or operating a 10-seat barbershop; some applicants gave their residence as their place of business.
"It's a feeding frenzy,” an official told the Post. “A lot of these are going through with little or no due diligence."
The SBA watchdog, formally, is its Office of Inspector General (OIG), whose report said investigators have “identified several organized fraud rings that use social media to recruit applicants who split advance money with ringleaders."
Some loan accounts were set up with stolen identities, the report said, and “numerous” investigations are underway.
Kenneth says he knew nothing about where the promised grant would actually come from. Coincidentally, July 11 — the day he met with the women — is the day the SBA stopped giving $10,000 advances on EIDL loans.
In announcing the cut-off date, the SBA said the warning signs of fraud included:
- Use of stolen identities
- Applications from ineligible people, such as those who have no business
- Fake businesses, or real entities that inflated business or financial information
- Applications for EIDL funds to launch a new business, which the program does not allow
Identity at risk
Kenneth never saw the $10,000. He says the older woman finally told him the grant window had closed. She returned $400 of his $600 and kept the rest. But the partial repayment didn't soothe a headache: His personally identifiable information had been hijacked. “I just want this nightmare to go away,” he says.
He's since ended the friendship — “She's a scam artist,” he says — and urges people to avoid such hijinks. “If someone comes to you with something that sounds too good to be true, it's not true.”
What to do if your identity is stolen
After Kenneth was victimized, he called AARP’s Fraud Watch Network Helpline (877-908-3360) for advice and also spoke to this writer. He was urged to:
- File a report with the police
- Contact the Federal Trade Commission’s Identity Theft Hotline (877-438-4338) and visit an FTC website, identitytheft.gov, to develop a recovery plan
- Contact the Illinois attorney general’s office to file a fraud complaint
- Contact the Illinois secretary of state to report his driver’s license number has been compromised
- Contact his bank and close the compromised account
- Alert the three major credit bureaus and freeze his credit.
In Kenneth’s case, since the fraud appears tied to an SBA loan program, he was urged to file a complaint to its watchdog by phone (800-767-0385) or online.