I Went to Prison for SBA Loan Fraud: 7 Things to Know When Taking COVID-19 Relief Money
Don't let desperation cloud your judgment.
In the months after 9/11, I was frantic.
But my fears had less to do with the tragedy at the Word Trade Center and more to do with the fact that, after 10 years of rampant prescription opioid abuse, my business was failing. I was searching desperately for an out. Meanwhile, the television and radio were blaring with ads for 9/11 FEMA loans administered by the U.S. Small Business Administration.
So, on an especially bad day, I lied.
I said I had an office near ground zero. I received the SBA loan I requested, and immediately paid down the personal credit cards I had run up while waiting for the SBA money. Even so, the loan did little to stop my spiral into drug addiction, mental health issues, marital problems and magical thinking.
In 2002, I resigned my law license and started on the road to recovery. But it all caught up with me about 20 months later, when I was arrested for the misrepresentations on my loan application. I served almost 14 months at a Federal prison for wire fraud and money laundering.
My objective in writing this piece is to offer some insight on what business owners should consider before they take out disaster loans. Certainly, the majority of people requesting these loans are honest and upstanding entrepreneurs who have immense need for the aid, and will use the funds properly. I am very glad there is help for them. That said, history has shown us again and again that when people are in dire need, they're more prone to make impulsive, ill-advised decisions. My hope is that sharing my experience will help others avoid the consequences I faced. Here are seven takeaways.
1. Desperate people do desperate things.
There were thousands of fraud prosecutions after 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, Superstorm Sandy, and so on. Why? Whether because of overwhelming business issues, poor personal judgment, or just plain bad luck, people were wounded, desperate and willing to do anything, anything, to stop the bleeding. But if the wound is too deep, a Band-aid is not sufficient.
Practice point: In any situation, behaving desperately is unlikely to save your business.
2. Beware of the belief that rules are suspended in times of emergency.
The government is advertising that huge amounts of money are available to save our businesses. I recently sat in on a webinar run by a very reputable business consulting group that recommended that attendees get their SBA disaster loan applications in immediately, regardless of the facts or the actual needs of their business — they said we could always modify our applications prior to taking the money. State unemployment websites are actually giving instructions, in writing, on how to mislead and circumvent the system in order to get approved. Don’t take the bait! If you default two years from now, this “good-meaning advice” won’t matter to prosecutors.
Practice point: Be truthful at all times.
3. Beware of magical thinking.
This is a tough one because entrepreneurs are inherently optimistic. We believe that things will always be better tomorrow than they are today. It drives us, makes us successful, informs our risk-taking. But in times of trauma, that voice can be an entrepreneur’s worst enemy. Does this sound familiar? We have learned the hard way that there is no shortcut, and yet we desperately want there to be one right now.
Practice point: Instead of immediately reaching for a bailout or other quick fix, develop a good solid business plan. Maybe a disaster loan will fit into this plan; maybe it won’t.
4. This paradigm shift will affect all small to mid-size businesses.
We are in the midst of a massive reordering that has already had a huge effect on small and mid-sized businesses. Business owners are being called to closely examine if our business models are still viable, or if we must pivot to new ways of doing things. Example: the Swiss watch industry completely missed the shift to digital watches. Have we waited too long to have a robust online presence? Are our products or services even needed anymore? Have we been holding on by a thread for years, unwilling or unable to look at the hard facts?
Practice point: Get real, now. Don’t borrow money to save a business that can’t be saved.
5. Be cautious when borrowing from the government.
As is the case with any loan, the devil is in the details. The terms and covenants in the loan documents dictate what you can or can’t do with the money once you get it. You can only use the funds for the purposes you stated in your application — that is, to pay operating expenses of the business to keep it afloat until it starts bringing in sufficient revenue again. You (and your spouse) will probably have sign for the loan personally, and will probably have to pledge all available collateral, including a second (or third) mortgage on your house. If you maxed out your personal credit cards while anticipating your disaster relief funding, you can’t use the money to pay off your cards.
Practice point: Read the terms and covenants of the loan closely. Whatever the loan terms say to do, do, and whatever they say don’t do, don’t do. No exceptions.
6. We can't save our businesses and our lifestyles at the same time.
Here’s the big trap. We have mortgages, car payments, school tuitions, and other personal expenses that have to be paid, and soon. But simply put, SBA loans are meant to save your business, not your lifestyle. Discuss all your options with advisors and friends you trust — ones that will tell you the truth! It’s like going to the doctor. Your diagnosis will only be as accurate as the history you provide. These are trying times, with a triage system designed to be more expeditious than thorough.
Practice point: There is no such thing as a free lunch. Borrowing money comes with responsibility and accountability.
7. Get acquainted with acceptance.
I hope we are all great entrepreneurs who can figure out ways to make our businesses survive and flourish. But let’s face it. Some of our businesses will not make it, even with the infusion of government funds. What should we do? We can pare down, embrace change and do things differently as we start a new chapter. Never forget that there will always be opportunity to start again, and to live a fuller, more abundant life.
Practice point: Sometimes less is way, way more!