The Bounce Back Loan Scheme (BBLs) which has been described as a ‘giant bonfire’ of taxpayers’ money by a senior banker, has seen fraud investigations rise by more than 50 per cent in some areas.

In total, £46 billion has been loaned under the scheme since its inception. However, the Cabinet Office believe that fraud losses across the public sector generally could be between 0.5 and 5 per cent, making a total of up to £2.3 billion on the scheme alone.

In addition, as of January 2021, according to the British Business Bank (BBB), which oversees the scheme, 43,958 loan applications, worth £1.6 billion were blocked by lenders, due to suspicions of fraud.

BBLs fraud investigations by the City of London Police increased by more than 50 per cent in February 2021 compared to the previous month, shows research from RPC, the international law firm.

The number of investigations opened into possible BBLs fraud increased from 17 in January to 26 in February before rising to 28 in March.

BBLs were those offered to small and medium-sized businesses in the UK that were impacted by the Coronavirus pandemic. More than 1.5 million businesses took out a loan before the scheme closed on 31 March 2021. These were 100 per cent state-backed and worth up to £50,000 interest free in the first 12 months.

Due to low levels of controls, designed to enable lenders to fast-track payments to help struggling businesses, there are concerns that abuse of the scheme was widespread.

It has been reported that fraudsters falsified documents to claim loans for non-existent companies, whilst some company directors used money claimed through the scheme to pay for personal items such as luxury cars.

RPC says abuse of the BBLs scheme can carry a heavy prison sentence if defendants are found guilty by a jury. However, with a huge backlog of criminal cases (compounded further by Covid-19), trials for even serious offenders caught today are unlikely to take place until 2023/2024.

Sam Tate, partner and head of white collar crime at RPC says: “The authorities will want to accelerate the pace of investigations. Otherwise, there is a high risk these assets will leave the country.”

“BBLs have been particularly attractive to fraudsters. Despite lenders blocking tens of thousands of applications believed to be fraudulent, many will have slipped through holes in the net, with the cost to the taxpayer estimated to be in the billions of pounds.

“Yet, trials even for serious BBL fraudsters caught today are unlikely to take place until 2023/2024, which is less of a deterrent for on-going fraud.”