Raking in the thieves

JIMMY ELLINGHAM
Last updated 12:00 11/07/2011

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Forty-five beneficiaries who fraudulently claimed more than $1 million in taxpayer assistance were prosecuted in Palmerston North, Levin and Feilding courts last year.

Figures released under the Official Information Act show the Ministry of Social Development prosecuted 45 benefit fraudsters in the region's courts in 2009-10 over claims of $1,151,441 from Work and Income.

The latest available figures for the 2010-11 year show 21 people were prosecuted in the six months to December 30, 2010, for wrongly obtaining $471,134 in benefits.

The maximum jail sentence for fraudsters is seven years. Earlier this year in Palmerston North District Court, Judge Gregory Ross wondered if penalties were "insufficient".

The judge sentenced Joseph Hina, 30, to 200 hours' community work after Hina received $6711.73 in overpayments between April 2009 and January this year.

"It seems as though there is an increasing number of these welfare fraud cases before the court," he said.

That is true of the Palmerston North, Levin and Feilding courts.

Thirty-six people were prosecuted in 2008-09 and 29 the year before.

Ministry chief executive Peter Hughes said that in 2009-10, the ministry handed out $16 billion in income assistance for the unemployed and superannuitants nationally.

"Fraud represents one-tenth of 1 per cent of that spend."

In 2009-10, $15.9m was wrongly claimed.

The ministry had recovered $1.5m of that.

"Once a fraud debt has been established the ministry will pursue that debt for as long as it takes. This can include taking any remaining money from their estate or seizing their assets," Mr Hughes said.

Nationwide, the busiest year to date for benefit fraud prosecutions was 2007-08, when 1028 people were hauled before the courts.

Among the benefit fraudsters sentenced in Palmerston North District Court this year are:

Denise Carol Nicol. Between December 2003 and March 2010, the Palmerston North sickness beneficiary wrongly claimed $25,893 in overpayments which she put toward buying and selling houses. In March, she was sentenced to seven months' home detention.

While working for Manawatu's failed Signature Homes franchise, from which she stole $31,397.04, Debra Kay Price also claimed $16,517 benefit money. She was sent to prison for two years and two months, having also taken $134,327.12 from Mag and Tyre Direct and Fore Cars Manawatu.

Alycia Liddington, 26, was sentenced to five months' home detention for fraudulently claiming $27,322.79. Her ex-partner Virgil Tonge, 32, was sentenced to 13 1/2 months' prison for wrongly claiming $46,025.73.

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In 2007, the Social Development ministry established an intelligence unit to identify fraud risks.

There were now 95 fulltime fraud investigators around New Zealand, Mr Hughes said.

Social Development Minister Paula Bennett has this year said she had "issues" with the fact benefit fraudsters, once convicted, could still claim benefit money.

Benefit fraud prosecutions at Palmerston North, Levin and Fielding courts:

2007-08: 29 people, who had claimed $327,644

2008-09: 36 people, who had claimed $907,282

2009-10: 45 people, who had claimed $1,151,411

2010-11 (until December 30): 21 people, who had claimed $471,134.

Nationwide prosecutions:

2007-08: 1028 people, who had claimed $6.4m

2008-09: 735 people, who had claimed $11m

2009-10: 789 people, who had claimed $15.9m

2010-11 (until December 30): 435 people, who had claimed $9.9m

- Manawatu Standard

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