ST. LOUIS – As small businesses struggled to stay open at the start of the pandemic in 2020, two women, one of whom was from St. Louis, took advantage of the help being offered to small businesses through the CARES Act.

Prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Missouri said the two women created a fraudulent small business by changing the name of an existing company in Montana to Couture Trading Inc.

After changing the name of the company with the Montana Secretary of State’s Office, Jeannine Buford from St. Louis listed herself as the company’s president and another woman, Porshia L. Thomas, as the director, vice president, secretary, and treasurer.

The two women falsely claimed Couture Trading was operating out of California with 15 employees and had an average monthly payroll of $120,000, according to federal prosecutors.

Under Couture Trading Inc., the women applied for a PPP, or Paycheck Protection Program, loan under the CARES Act. The loan was intended to provide small businesses with funds to pay up to eight weeks of payroll costs and benefits when small businesses struggled to make ends meet during the pandemic.

Once their fraudulent loan application was approved, the bank issued them a $291,000 PPP loan in September 2020.

Thomas received the loan and then wired Buford $10,000 and wrote her a $65,000 check.

Prosecutors claim Buford went on a shopping spree, spending the money on food, clothes, a $5,000 couch and $14,000 for a deposit on a 2017 BMW X6. She rented a luxury apartment in downtown St. Louis for over $1,800 with the loan.

The bank, after realizing something seemed off, recovered $206,000 of the loan money given to the two women.

Federal prosecutors claim that in February of this year, Buford pleaded guilty to conspiring to commit wire fraud. She was sentenced to two years in prison for conspiring to defraud the COVID-19 pandemic relief program.

This is not the first time Buford has engaged in fraud. Since 1999, she has six felony fraud convictions for forging checks and selling counterfeit handbags, according to a sentencing memo filed by Assistant U.S. Attorney Derek J. Wiseman.

Thomas pleaded guilty to a bank fraud charge and has been sentenced to five years of probation. Buford and Thomas have been ordered to repay the money.