Centrelink fraud is one the most commonly prosecuted offences in Australia, and a recent taskforce is getting creative with ways to seek it out.
Australia has a relatively broad welfare system, with the federal government funding around $150 billion per year in benefits – a figure that is set to rise in coming years with our ageing population. But not everyone plays by the rules. It is estimated that welfare fraud costs the taxpayer around $9 million a year. Now, law enforcement agencies are saying enough is enough, forming an alliance with welfare agencies to track down and prosecute welfare fraud via social media.
The Australian Federal Police (AFP) formed “Taskforce Integrity” in August 2015 to investigate and prosecute welfare fraud. Comprised of specially trained officers, the taskforce has sent letters to those suspected of fraud reminding them it is an offence to give false information to Centrelink. Speaking to the media, Human Services Minister Alan Trudge warned that police would remain vigilant in investigating cases of Centrelink fraud: “Australians should be proud that we have a strong social security safety net, but we must remember welfare payments come from taxpayers, who have a right to expect integrity in the system. There are serious consequences for those who deliberately defraud the system. The AFP have partnered with us to crack down on welfare cheats.” Police are reportedly turning to unorthodox methods to stop suspects in their tracks: according to a recent media article, police are searching Twitter and Facebook posts for signs of undisclosed changes in personal circumstances.
The new tactic has reportedly uncovered many instances of people falsely claiming to be single in order to access higher welfare payments – in one case, a couple on individual benefits had allegedly taken to Twitter to publicly announce they were in a relationship and expecting a child. In other cases, individuals claiming to be unemployed had allegedly been caught after sharing information about their workplace online. Police have also reportedly partnered with online auction site eBay to track welfare recipients who have disposed of undeclared assets. Police are also targeting welfare recipients in “high fraud areas” – such as Werribee in Victoria, where investigators identified 1,888 cases of welfare fraud totalling a whopping $4.5 million. Since its launch, Taskforce Integrity has reportedly identified around $9 million in overpayments – with seven people arrested and charged with fraud.
What is Centrelink fraud?
Centrelink fraud is one of the most commonly prosecuted offences in Australia. If you fail to advise Centrelink of a change in your circumstances – such as a pay rise or change in your relationship or residential status – and you receive a greater benefit than you are entitled to, you could be issued with a “Notice of Overpayment” from Centrelink. The notice will generally require you to repay Centrelink the amount that was overpaid. Where there has been a substantial overpayment or a lengthy period of non-compliance, Centrelink may commence an investigation and may obtain your bank records, tax records and other information. You may be asked to attend Centrelink for an interview to answer questions about your actions in order to determine whether you acted intentionally. If Centrelink determines that action needs to be taken, the matter may be referred to the AFP, who may charge you with fraud and issue you with a Court Attendance Notice. If your case does end up in court, it will be prosecuted by the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), who will need to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that: your actions or omissions allowed you to obtain a financial benefit from Centrelink, and you knew you were not eligible to receive those benefits.
Generally, cases innocent mistakes will not amount to Centrelink fraud – but a continued pattern of failing to advise of a change in circumstances might do so. If you have received a Centrelink overpayment it is strongly advised that you contact an experienced criminal lawyer in order to discuss your options and the best way forward.