The nation's tight credit situation is encouraging an increase in con artists who represent themselves as government officials or government-approved firms promising low-interest government loans for a bribe, Small Business Administration officials said yesterday.
One disheartening part of the problem is that many persons believe they can obtain government loans only by bribing persons they feel are connected with the government, one government official said.
Daniel Henson, director of the Commerce Department Minority Business Development Agency, said the agency is investigating one of 188 MBDA-funded organizations for allegedly trying illegally to charge a fee to socially and economically disadvantaged loan appicants.
"If you are a small business manager who is anxiously searching for capital in these times of tight credit and spiraling interest rates, you are a red-hot target for these persons or firms," said SBA Administrator A. Vernon Weaver.
The flim-flam artists prey on persons desperate for SBA direct loans, which have interest rates ranging from 3 percent to 8.25 percent, an SBA spokesman said. This compares to bank rates of 20 percent and higher.
They also are attracted to disaster areas and persons who are trying to apply for SBA disaster loans, SBA officials said.
The con artists say that they are either SBA representatives or SBA-approved loan application preparation firms that help business owners fill out the appropriate forms and perform the paperwork necessary to submit a loan application to the SBA. The flim-flammers tell their victims that for a very high fee paid in advance they can assure them of getting the loan, the SBA said.
The SBA, however, doesn't approve or license loan application packaging firms. The SBA contends that persons don't need outside assistance to complete loan application forms anyway.
The agency does allow the charging of fees for loan application preparation.
Maximum fees are determined by the SBA but an applicant won't know if the fee paid is excessive until the SBA receives the forms, SBA officials said.
Some of the con artists who prey on disaster victims roam from disaster to disaster and are "the 1980s version of the ambulance chaser," Weaver said.
After receiving the fees, the con artists never submit loan applications to the SBA, officials said. Others pose as contractors who move into disaster areas, say that they are SBA-approved, and at excessive fees arrange contracts to repair the damaged property. Usually the money is paid, but the work never is done.
Paul Boucher, SBA inspector general, said he doesn't have exact figures on the number of con artists, the number of victims or amounts of money involved, but he knows that this type of case is "on the upswing now on the basis of what we're being told."
In the last four years about six persons have been prosecuted for such enterprises, Boucher added.