180 face benefit fraud probe

NICCI MCDOUGALL
Last updated 05:00 10/01/2014

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More than 180 people in Southland and Central Otago are being investigated by the Ministry of Social Development for suspected benefit fraud in addition to the 21 convicted in the two regions last year.

A regional breakdown is unavailable but the ministry has confirmed most of its investigations establish a benefit overpayment has occurred, although only a small proportion may reveal deliberate fraud resulting in prosecution.

Benefit fraud is an increasing problem for the government, with more than $600,000 stolen last year in the southern region.

Figures released to The Southland Times under the Official Information Act show 18 people were convicted in the Invercargill District Court for fraudulent overpayment of benefit in the 2012-13 financial year, up from 10 in 2011-12.

Those 18 totalled a benefit fraud figure of $345,184.

That compares with a total of $300,103 last year.

Seven people were convicted in the Balclutha District Court this year, up from one in 2009-10 and four in 2010-11. The highest sum taken in the past five years was $163,016 this year in Balclutha.

No one had been convicted in the Queenstown District Court in the past five years, but three have been in Gore, four in Alexandra and 79 in Invercargill.

The highest amount fraudulently overpaid for which a conviction was registered in the Invercargill District Court in 2012-13 was $62,894. The highest amount last year was $133,909.

A total of $664,371 has been taken across the southern region, which includes Invercargill, Gore, Alexandra and Balclutha.

Ministry of Social Development deputy chief executive of students, seniors and integrity services Iona Holsted said the ministry took its responsibilities in administering $17 billion of income assistance to more than 1 million Kiwis each year "very seriously".

On February 20 the Associate Minister for Social Development Chester Borrows announced measures to prevent, detect and reduce welfare fraud, including working with other government agencies.

In the year ending June 30 the ministry made 3618 investigations and completed 979 prosecutions.

In the south, the longest period someone obtained a benefit fraudulently was 1918 weeks. The client changed benefit categories over the specified period.

"Benefit fraud affects all New Zealanders. Thankfully, it is only committed by a small minority," Ms Holsted said.

It was vital the public had trust and confidence in the ministry to ensure people received their correct entitlement and did not take advantage of the welfare system.

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"The ministry does not tolerate benefit fraud. We actively seek to prevent, detect and reduce incidences of benefit fraud and our systems are constantly improving to allow us to do this," she said.

The ministry had a team of about 90 specialist fraud investigators throughout the country and an intelligence unit that identifies emerging fraud risks and trends.

The ministry worked with other government agencies and intel units to identify and cut fraud. It also investigated cases that arose from allegations from members of the public.

Mr Borrows said the figures showed there was only a tiny minority of benefit fraudsters.

"The overwhelming majority of the 310,000 people receiving support from Work and Income follow the rules and do the right thing.

"Those who try to minimise the offending of welfare fraudsters do every other honest beneficiary a disservice."

- The Southland Times

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