More than 200 beneficiaries have been prosecuted in the region's courts over the past five years for scamming more than $4 million off the taxpayer.
Figures released to the Manawatu Standard under the Official Information Act also show the Social Development Ministry prosecuted 43 benefit fraudsters in 2011/12 for making false claims from Work and Income.
The 43 fraudsters, who wrongly claimed $731,538, were convicted in the Palmerston North, Feilding, Levin, Marton and Dannevirke District Courts.
Those numbers were down on the 2010/11 year, when 46 fraudsters claimed $955,068, and the 2009/10 year, when 49 people were prosecuted for $1,191,535.
Nationwide the number of prosecutions has been largely stagnant for the past four financial years, but the amount of money wrongly claimed is increasing.
The maximum jail sentence for fraudsters is seven years and some judges have wondered if that is harsh enough.
“It seems as though there is an increasing number of these welfare fraud cases before the court,” Judge Gregory Ross said at a sentencing last year.
In Palmerston North District Court recently, Judge Gerard Lynch got tough on repeat offender Letisha Lilly Anne Proctor, who was jailed for eight months for receiving over-payments of $10,476 between December 2010 and October last year.
“Sentencing needs to clearly denounce fraud and deter those that might be minded to offend in the same way,” Judge Lynch told Proctor, ignoring her lawyer's plea to impose a home detention sentence and allow her to keep working.
“In my assessment it would be patently wrong to allow her leave to apply for home detention,” the judge said.
Proctor began offending while serving a home detention sentence for fraudulently obtaining $27,528 in benefits between August 2008 and May 2010.
She was then working for the ministry and created false identities and accessed client information for financial gain.
Another notable benefit fraud prosecution was in Feilding District Court this year when a mother and daughter duo combined to fleece the taxpayer of almost $130,000.
Care worker Tine-Marie Johnston was ordered to do seven months' home detention and 200 hours' community work after she wrongly claimed $97,215 domestic purposes benefit and accommodation supplement money between 2006 and 2011.
Records showed she was working and living with her partner. Her daughter, Josie Eve Mallinder, was sentenced to six months' community detention and 175 hours' community work for claiming $30,811 she wasn't entitled to.
Ministry deputy chief executive Iona Holsted said benefit fraud was taken seriously and there were about 100 investigators working around New Zealand, as well as a benefit fraud team based in Wellington.
Data matching with other government agencies checked about 538 million records a year, while a ministry allegation line received about 11,000 calls last year.
"Most cases the ministry investigates are around clients not being honest about their relationships and failing to tell us they're working whilst receiving the benefit," Ms Holsted said. "Irrespective of what type of fraud someone may be committing, if we suspect they're offending, we'll investigate. If that person meets the level of prosecution, we'll put them before the court."
Prosecutions in Palmerston North, Feilding, Levin, Marton and Dannevirke District Courts: 2007/8: 31 people, who had claimed $344,596 2008/9: 38 people, who had claimed $962,781 2009/10: 49 people, who had claimed $1,191,535 2010/11: 46 people, who had claimed $955,068 2011/12: 43 people, who had claimed $731,538 Total for five years: 207 people, who had claimed $4,185,518. Nationwide: There were 1028 prosecutions in 2007/8, 735 in 08/9, 789 in 09/10, 690 in 10-/11, 742 in 11/12.
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