An investigation by the U.S. Secret Service concluded that hackers linked to the Chinese government stole at least $20 million in COVID-19 relief benefits from the United States, NBC News reported Monday.
This marks the first case of pandemic fraud that has been tied to state-sponsored, foreign cybercriminals, the outlet reported.
According to the Secret Service, the theft was perpetrated by a Chengdu-based hacking group called APT41, which was able to steal numerous funds from Small Business Administration loans and unemployment insurance funds.
While the Secret Service was able to verify the fraud occurring in at least a dozen states, agency officials told NBC News that the hacking by APT41 was likely on a much larger scale.
"It would be crazy to think this group didn't target all 50 states," one official said. The Secret Service went onto describe APT41 as a "notable player" in the foreign hacking community. While the agency would not reveal the full scope of its investigation, it said there are currently over 1,000 ongoing investigations "involving transnational and domestic criminal actors defrauding public benefits programs."
The Secret Service said APT41 was already a significant player in the world of foreign hacking by the time the COVID pandemic reared its head, describing the group as the "workhorse" of Chinese government-backed cyber spying.
Since the scope of the pandemic fraud has come to light, federal agencies have been working to get large quantities of stolen money back. The Secret Service said in August that it had recovered $286 million in stolen funds, including some from APT41.