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House call plan to nab benefit fraudsters

BEN HEATHER
Last updated 05:00 03/12/2013

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Snoopers could soon be calling on solo parents to check whether they are still living alone, as part of the Government's clampdown on benefit fraudsters.

The measure, if introduced, would mean every solo parent would receive a "home visit" 14 weeks after going on to a benefit to make sure they were not committing fraud.

Papers released under the Official Information Act show officials hope the visits can help to uncover parents who are no longer single but are still fraudulently claiming a benefit.

With about 34,000 fresh solo-parent benefit applications a year, officials advised that contractors would need to be hired to handle the workload.

Those contractors could then report back to Work and Income, which would decide whether to cut payments or lay fraud charges.

Associate Social Development Minister Chester Borrows said the proposal was still being tested and was about "checking in rather than checking up".

"I imagine people respond in different ways. Hopefully they will see it as the department being helpful."

Relationships could develop quickly and some people might not be aware of their obligation to tell Work and Income, he said. "[It is] saying, ‘Are you still in the right space and have you still got what you need?' "

But Labour social development spokeswoman Sue Moroney said the visits would be "complete overkill", levelling suspicion at people who had done nothing wrong.

"If only they would put their money into putting people into paid employment, rather than bringing in the thought police," she said.

The measure is one of many being considered by the Government to cut the benefit bill and identify benefit fraudsters. Relationship fraud among solo mothers is one of the biggest targets, as it is difficult to detect.

The latest figures show more than 5300 "illegitimate" benefits were cancelled in the first nine months of this year, saving an estimated $56 million a year.

Most were caught through new agreements that allow government agencies to share tax, housing, travel and police information about suspected fraudsters.

It has also led to other agencies cancelling support, with Housing NZ evicting people from 292 houses after fraud investigations in the last year.

Other changes being considered include creating a new offence for partners of convicted benefit fraudsters and making them help to repay fraudulently obtained money.

Beneficiaries who have previously defrauded Work and Income are also facing tougher scrutiny and will be more aggressively pursued, possibly by debt collectors, for repayments.

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However, so far the crackdown has done little to dent the $128m already owed by fraudulent beneficiaries.

In the past year, Work and Income received just $3m in repayment from fraudsters, while the amount they owed grew by $22m.

Mr Borrows said the amount owed was rising because more fraud was being uncovered. "We've never looked in the way we are looking now."

Home visits for solo parents are being trialled regionally early next year, alongside less intrusive options, such as a Work and Income office appointment and a "catch-up" phone call.

SWINDLERS OWE MILLIONS

The Hawke's Bay region has overshadowed Wellington in the amount owed by benefit fraudsters, new figures from the Ministry of Social Development show. Between them, the 41 people convicted of benefit fraud in the 2012-13 financial year in Napier, Hastings, Waipukurau and Wairoa owed $1.8 million.

The 56 people convicted of benefit fraud in the wider Wellington region that same year owed $1.73m. The fraudsters, convicted in Wellington, Porirua, Lower and Upper Hutt, and Masterton's courts, topped the region's previous year's total of $1.42m owed by 46 people convicted. A total 935 people were prosecuted in the 2012-13 year nationwide, establishing a total debt of $26.4m from benefit overpayments.

The previous year 714 people were convicted for between them wrongly collecting $23.4m in debt. According to figures released by the ministry under the Official Information Act, the single largest amount owed by one person in Wellington in 2011-12 was $137,908, and in New Zealand was $447,515. Fifty-one people, who wrongly claimed $1.49m, were convicted in the Palmerston North, Feilding, Levin and Dannevirke courts in 2012-13. 

- © Fairfax NZ News

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