Stephen Bogan, a prestige car dealer, could be forgiven for the confusion. While checking on a loan being used to buy a £41,000 Porsche from his showroom in Airdrie, Scotland, Mr Bogan was alarmed to discover that his company was listed as the buyer. The attempted fraud was barely more sophisticated than skimming his details from the internet and asking for a loan, he says, adding that “the bank still paid out the money”.
“It was the perfect crime because we would not have been aware until next year when the bank would have started asking us for interest on the loan,” says the car seller.
Mr Bogan was the target of fraudsters seeking to exploit weaknesses in the UK government’s £43.5bn coronavirus Bounce Back Loans Scheme. Launched by chancellor Rishi Sunak in May, it was designed to provide cash quickly for struggling businesses, but its loose rules were immediately exposed with some estimates suggesting as much as £26bn will be lost to defaults and fraud.
The Financial Times has spoken to more than a dozen senior bankers, fraud experts and people involved in the creation and running of the programme. In the words of one, “the scheme was being abused and defrauded on an industrial scale”.
Several bankers point to a range of attacks from impersonation of legitimate businesses, such as Mr Bogan’s car showroom, to the use of willing “money mules” who take out loans only to then file for bankruptcy.
“In 10 years’ time, people will still be looking for the money,” says David Clarke, chairman of the Fraud Advisory Panel and a former head of the City of London Police fraud squad. He adds that the political reckoning could be just as long-lasting, “when the inquiries start into what happened with this scheme”.
Even greater losses are set to come from the billions lent to companies with little chance, or ability, to repay, after a devastating year that is set to cause widespread business failures in 2021 and beyond.
“The period from April to June was essentially a giant bonfire of taxpayers’ money,” says one senior banker, “with banks just handing out matches”.
‘It’s basically free money’
The UK’s bounce back scheme was hailed as the saviour of small businesses fighting to stay afloat amid national lockdowns. Under attack from MPs and companies running out of cash, Treasury officials agreed to guarantee all money lent by the banks. As a result bankers were more comfortable with waiving credit checks to speed up the process, relying on basic “know your customer” and fraud checks.
Mr Sunak told MPs: “There will be no forward-looking tests of business viability; no complex eligibility criteria; just a simple, quick, standard form for businesses to fill in.”
The terms were equally attractive: loans of up to £50,000 with no capital or interest repayments for one year — and then just 2.5 per cent for up to a decade. “People saw it and thought, ‘wow’! Why on earth wouldn’t they take it? It’s basically free money,” says the senior banker.
Blows to business support
Government estimate of maximum eventual losses from loans made under the bounce back scheme
Latest Office for Budget Responsibility estimate of overall losses from coronavirus support schemes
Sum that an Essex HR manager has been accused of trying to steal, using claims from oblivious employees
Within days, more than £8bn had been lent to 250,000 small businesses. As of December 17, more than £43.5bn had been lent under the scheme to 1.4m companies, far more than the £18bn to £26bn anticipated at launch.
The Office for Budget Responsibility said in November that it expected a total of up to £87bn of business borrowing to be backed by government guarantees — the majority in bounce back loans.
“The key objective was to get money out, at scale, quickly, and to a broad range of business,” Sarah Munby, permanent secretary at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, told the public accounts committee in November.
It did not take long for bankers to realise that loans were being taken by borrowers who would struggle to repay. “By definition,” says one person involved in the creation of the scheme, “the sort of borrowers who take the loans cannot afford to pay them back under normal banking conditions”.
Within weeks of the scheme launching, senior executives at high-street banks were raising concerns that up to half of the money could be lost.
The government itself had estimated losses from the scheme could be between a third and 75 per cent due to the parlous nature of many businesses going into the crisis. The threat of such huge losses required a ministerial direction — in effect an order by Alok Sharma, the business secretary — to overrule concerns.
Ms Munby told MPs in November: “We are not able to sit here today and tell you how many of these loans will be paid back . . . from a managing public money [perspective] that is a concern.”
This is seen as unavoidable by officials — the cost of having to rush money to the type of small businesses that need it most. The focus now is on whether more could have been done to tackle the fraud and default risk earlier.
MPs on the House of Commons’ public accounts committee last week criticised the Treasury for its lack of data to assess the levels of fraud or even the scheme’s economic benefits — as well as its “woefully under-developed” plans with lenders to deal with fraudulently obtained loans or borrowers unable to repay. “Dropping the most basic checks was a huge issue that puts the taxpayer at risk to the tune of billions,” said Meg Hillier, chair of the committee.
At the end of November, the OBR increased its estimates of overall losses to as much as £29bn, the vast majority related to bounce back loans. In the best-case scenario, total losses from all the loan schemes could add up to £22bn; in the worst, taxpayers would foot a £40bn bill — almost half of all government lending to business during the crisis. On Thursday, the chancellor extended the scheme for a second time, to the end of March.
“A lot of the money has been spent having a good time. It becomes unrecoverable,” says Mike Levi, professor of criminology at Cardiff University, who is researching fraud activity during pandemics. “There will be an almighty row in a few years but by then it will be too late.”
‘Vulnerable to organised crime’
In October, three people were arrested in Birmingham on suspicion of involvement in a £145,000 fraud involving bounce back loans. Separately, a human resources manager in Essex has been accused of trying to steal £240,000 in bounce back loans, using claims from oblivious employees on the payroll.
This will be “the first of many operations planned by my officers,” said Michael Dineen, head of fraud operations at the National Investigation Service, after the Birmingham raid.
Ms Munby told MPs that it was recognised that there “would be fraud because of choices about the design of the scheme”.
“This is basically [a criminal’s] dream scenario,” says a person familiar with the banks’ internal reviews. “An incredibly lucrative fraud that requires very little work and has almost no chance of law enforcement action.”
One senior executive at a high street bank says that as many as 15 per cent of applications were deemed fraudulent in the first weeks of the scheme. “This was the highest rate of cyber fraud that we have ever seen pretty much immediately,” he says. “We realised we were going into something scary.”
In a letter to the business department just two days before its launch, Keith Morgan, the then chief executive of the British Business Bank, which administers the scheme, said there were “very significant fraud and credit risks” and that it was “vulnerable to abuse by individuals and organised crime”.
A review of the scheme in May, by PwC, the consultancy, calculated the fraud risk as “very high”. The Cabinet Office said that fraud losses would likely be higher than the estimates of public sector fraud across all government spending of between 0.5 per cent and 5 per cent.
During the first two months, high street banks rejected hundreds of fraudulent applications on a daily basis, according to senior executives. Much of this initial surge was caused by a loophole that allowed the filing of multiple applications across banks — it was at least two months before cross-industry checks were put in place.
“We were flying blind,” says the chairman of one high street bank.
Criminals adapted the tools of established financial fraud to target the scheme. Acuris Risk Intelligence, which tracks online fraud, found one gang that claimed to have taken £6m using stolen UK identities. Acuris’ head of market planning Nick Parfitt says compromised credit card details were also used.
“At first, criminals were not going for the full £50,000 as they expected banks to check. But when that didn’t happen,” he adds, “they went hell for leather.”
His findings are supported by another bank fraud expert, who says that criminals would apply for loans of £48,000, assuming that applying for the full £50,000 would raise a red flag. But, he says, since the government allowed a further “top up” to the full amount for businesses, fraudsters have tried to come back for the remainder.
Bankers have also highlighted the use of “mules” — people in financial difficulties recruited by organised gangs to borrow money then declare bankruptcy. One banker describes bounce back customers who already had sizeable overdrafts and other debts; customers who rarely used personal accounts suddenly turning them into business ones; customers sending the balance overseas; and multiple occupancy houses where several people all successfully applied for the maximum £50,000 loans.
“We had some indications this was happening,” says another senior banker, “but could do very little to stop it because the government had taken a calculated risk and just wanted the money out there. It accepted that people would take advantage.”
About £1.1bn in fraudulent applications for UK bounce back scheme loans from almost 27,000 people have been rejected since May, according to a letter from the BBB to MPs in November. But fraud experts worry that many other false claims were successful.
Applicants were checked against a national fraud database and with basic anti money laundering checks, but other measures only took place once a loan was granted. The BBB says that banks expecting to use the government’s loan guarantee are required to take on clear anti-fraud obligations.
Anne Boden, chief executive of Starling Bank, told a Treasury select committee last week: “If . . . the fraudster gets through and they self-certify something and they lie, then that will be a claim against the taxpayer. That is the consequence of this scheme.”
The UK is not alone in seeing a spike in fraud. More than 10,000 cases of potential fraud related to the pandemic are being investigated in Germany. While in the US, the agency that manages Covid-related loans found “strong indicators of widespread potential fraud”.
Not ‘our decision to lend’
The money provided by the scheme has helped hundreds of thousands of struggling businesses survive the national lockdowns. For others, it was comforting to have money in the bank for a rainy day. Deposits in business accounts rose sharply as government money flooded into company coffers.
But some business owners saw a chance to pay down a credit card or a deposit for a property, invest in equities or even cryptocurrency, says one bank fraud expert. “Completely against the spirit and terms of the scheme but we honestly don’t know how we should treat these customers,” he adds.
Banks can only lend up to £50,000, or a maximum of a quarter of a company’s turnover. This meant, according to a different banker, “we found a strangely large number of business customers had precisely £200,000 turnover last year”.
Another executive points to the owner of 10 shops who used different business accounts to apply for £50,000 for each of them. In this case, the bank spotted the multiple applications and said no — which led to a complaint from the hopeful borrower. “Maybe he went and opened accounts at other banks . . . this is the type of thing that is going on maybe hundreds or thousands of times.”
Bankers suspect that the authorities will only pursue larger, high value cases, or where there are clear links to organised crime. “How will you prove [a loan] was intentionally misspent,” asks another senior banker, “rather than a bad business decision or the result of another lockdown?”
Banking sources say fraud levels have decreased since additional controls were introduced after June, with weekly prevention meetings between banks, and audits carried out by the BBB and PwC. At the same time fraud teams are scouring business accounts that have received bounce back loans to identify those dormant since the funds were withdrawn.
“The government has made it clear that action will be taken against individuals found to have fraudulently accessed, or attempted to access, bounce back loan funding,” says the BBB.
But bankers say criminals are still trying to game the system, even if many are detected ahead of approval. “The truth is we will not know how much money will come back until May,” when loans start to charge interest, says the bank fraud expert.
“Don’t forget these are 10-year loans,” says one bank chairman. “So we could be dealing with this for decades”.
“We targeted this support to help those who need it most as quickly as possible and we won’t apologise for this,” says a department of business spokesperson. “We are acting to crack down on fraud — with lenders implementing a range of protections including anti-money laundering and customer checks, as well as transaction monitoring controls.”
Although banks have to pursue lost money, they remain confident that the Treasury and Mr Sunak will ultimately foot the bill. Yet the government insists that the banks will need to do their best to recover the money. “We were expecting to just flip them to the government if they didn’t pay,” says another senior banker, “but now, I think we are going to have to try for a year to get our money back before we can go for the guarantee.
“Which I feel is unfair,” she adds, “it wasn’t our decision to lend”.