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At a time when genuine businesses were grappling with the economic fallout of COVID-19, Amir Aqeel and his associates were engrossed in masterminding a massive fraud scheme to swindle the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). In a case that magnifies the importance of transparency and honesty, Aqeel, 54, from Houston, was sentenced to 15 years in prison and is to forfeit over $5.5 million.

Aqeel, who spearheaded this extensive conspiracy, worked with a team of at least 14 individuals. Together, they successfully falsified 75 PPP loan applications in 2020. These applications manipulated the employee count, overstated monthly payroll expenses, and were bolstered by fraudulent bank records and doctored federal tax forms.

While many small businesses struggled to access relief funds, Aqeel’s ring was pocketing millions meant for them. Their actions were not limited to just application fraud. They paid substantial kickbacks to collaborators and laundered portions of the proceeds. This involved producing fake paychecks which were subsequently cashed at a company owned by one of the defendants, Siddiq Azeemuddin, named Almeda Discount Store. In total, over 1,100 forged paychecks, amounting to more than $3 million from the PPP funds, were cashed.

The audacity of this fraud ring did not end with financial manipulations. They indulged their gains, acquiring luxury items such as a Porsche and Lamborghini, symbolizing the magnitude of their deceit.

Aqeel’s conviction, however, is just the tip of the iceberg. Six other co-conspirators faced the weight of the law for their roles in this significant PPP loan fraud scheme. Sentences ranged from two to three and a half years in prison. The charges reflected their parts in the conspiracy, with some facing wire fraud and money laundering counts.

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This conviction serves as a stark reminder for small businesses about the importance of due diligence and the immense responsibility when accessing relief funds. When unscrupulous individuals defraud the system, it diverts necessary resources from businesses in genuine need.

Acting Assistant Attorney General Nicole M. Argentieri articulated the sentiment aptly, emphasizing that during a national crisis, these defendants exploited the system, plundering funds meant to alleviate businesses facing closure.

This large-scale fraud case underlines the vital role of vigilance and oversight. Multiple agencies, including the SBA Office of Inspector General, Federal Housing Finance Agency Office of Inspector General, and Homeland Security Investigations, collaborated in this investigation.

To small business owners, this case accentuates the importance of maintaining records transparently and ethically. With relief programs susceptible to fraudulent activities, this conviction underscores the government’s commitment to accountability.

If individuals possess information regarding potential COVID-19 related fraud, they’re encouraged to contact the Department of Justice’s National Center for Disaster Fraud.

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Image: Justice.gov



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