Thomas Fahling logged onto his online bank account one day this spring and couldn’t believe what he was seeing: $150,000 from the U.S. government.
Fahling, a 73-year-old front-desk clerk from Crystal, doesn’t own a business and had not requested any money.
He soon realized the bank had routed the money to him under the Paycheck Protection Program established by Congress to help U.S. businesses weather the economic fallout caused by the novel coronavirus pandemic.
“I’ve never owned a business, so it was quite a shock,” Fahling said.
He assumed someone from his bank, Sunrise Banks, would discover the mistake and reach out. But after two weeks, the money still sat in his personal checking account.
“I eventually reached out to them. Someone was expecting that money. A small business could’ve gone out of business if I hadn’t turned it in,” Fahling said.
With a plethora of private banks managing the application and lending process on behalf of the U.S. government, there’s no way to know if or how often PPP loans were misdirected in the early crush of applications, said Andrea Roebker, a spokeswoman for the Small Business Association, the U.S. agency overseeing the program.
“I haven’t heard of anything like that within the agency,” she said. “We processed quite a bit in a short amount of time in those early weeks.”
More than 5.2 million PPP applications totaling more than $525 billion have been approved as of Aug. 8. Nearly $11.3 billion in PPP loans have been approved for more than 103,000 Minnesota businesses.
Fahling was following the news related to PPP and figured someone at the bank accidentally transposed a number or two in the flurry of activity in April and May, when the first round of loans was being processed.
Sunrise Banks, which is based in St. Paul, declined to comment for this story.
When no one reached out to him, he weeded through his bank’s website and found a phone number to call for PPP questions. The bank quickly saw the error and pulled the funds from Fahling’s account.
When asked if he had second thoughts about coming forward, Fahling joked that he had considered moving to Mexico for a while.
“I wouldn’t mind having $150,000 of the government’s money for a legitimate reason,” Fahling said, “but not at the expense of some small business that otherwise might have to lay off workers and close the doors because somebody made an error.”
“It’s easy to track down the big millions, but sometimes the little stories and little amounts get swept into the cracks,” Fahling said. “I just wouldn’t want this to happen to another small business.”