Benefit Fraud: Even Fraudsters Need a Holiday!

Deliberately perpetrating a fraud is a very risky activity to undertake. An even more risky – or perhaps I should say silly – thing to do is to commit a fraud and then self-publish the evidence of your fraud to the entire world. Not by accident, mind you, but completely intentionally, as an act of vanity.

You may find it difficult to believe, but there really are people in the world as foolish as that. A report from LBC states that up to 400 Americans have some serious explaining to do after investigators discovered that the individuals had posted images and videos of themselves to Facebook performing strenuous activities while receiving disability payments.

I have to add here that anybody who actually gets found guilty and goes to prison for fraud over these “discoveries” must be very foolish indeed.

In typical government and media fashion, there has been over-zealous haste to bring these matters to public attention. I guess the idea is to scare people straight, which is actually something Americans do talk about.

Of course in this haste they have overlooked the really critical matter that Facebook images are not necessarily contemporary, nor are they guaranteed to accurately depict what they claim to depict.

That image of you lifting a huge stack of weights? Styrofoam! Riding the jet ski in Majorca? Green-screened! The one where you are playing tennis? That was shot more than three years ago!

That doesn’t mean you should tell lies. But it does mean that investigators should be a bit more modest instead of boldly announcing that they have caught somebody, lest it turns out they have been caught themselves.

Now of course, that Facebook shakeup happened in America, but it could quite easily happen in the UK as well. DWP has recently recruited thousands of additional investigators to ferret out frauds just like those American ones.

One of the areas that they are really starting to crack down on is people who have had radical and obvious changes in their circumstances and have neglected to inform DWP of those changes. In particular, they are concerned about people who claim benefits while “living abroad”. Their words, not mine, as you can see for yourself in their post (archived version).

This post probably resulted from media reports such as this one, which claims that “thousands of British expats” are living it up on foreign shores at taxpayers’ expense. How likely is this to really be true? Well on the one hand we could believe the data supplied by the government and take it as gospel. On the other hand we could consider that the very moment anyone leaves the country, this information is immediately recorded in government computers and shared across numerous departments, including DWP.

In theory it should be impossible for anyone to be incorrectly paid as a result of leaving the country because simply by the act of leaving the country they are informing DWP by proxy that they have done so. If DWP then chooses to pay benefits to an individual who has left the country, this would appear to be more of a fraud perpetrated by DWP than by the individual who is subsequently investigated.

There are only two possible explanations for how “thousands of British expats” could be doing this:

  • they are not, and the figures are entirely made up in order to influence the media and the public into thinking there is a great scandal going on; or
  • the Public Service is completely incompetent and can’t even handle programming a simple data-matching system (remember, these are the same people we are trusting with nuclear weapons, and to keep us safe from terrorism and other threats).

It’s difficult to know which of the above options to wager on. Then there is the matter that even though traveling abroad and claiming benefits is regarded as fraud, should it be? Must we have a system which limits the opportunity to travel exclusively to the rich? What about a situation where a British jobseeker must travel to France to attend a job interview? The system is not really set up to cope with the realities of living in a global era.

In fact DWP does not prevent anyone from traveling, they merely wish to be informed of the fact that the person is intending to travel or is currently doing so. There are some issues with this.

Firstly, there really are some situations where people have had faith in the system to report their change of circumstances for them. This is a quite sensible assumption because the government is a wealthy, powerful organisation with a lot of sophisticated technology that many of our readers have helped to pay for. Why would anyone think that DWP would not know when somebody leaves the country legally?

Actually, I can tell you that they do know. As mentioned, every time anyone travels out of the country, that fact is recorded and shared across multiple systems. The departure of any benefit recipient from the UK will generally be known about by DWP within 24 hours of it occurring.

So if DWP has good information that you have left the country and their automated payment system pays you anyway, there are two legal principles in play. The first of these is condonement, which is when somebody knows that something is wrong but still allows it to happen anyway. The second is entrapment, which is where a wrongful activity is permitted or encouraged so as to allow a person to incriminate themselves.

The problem with it all is that DWP requires you to inform them of something they already know about. They make it your responsibility to take an action, and there will naturally be some people who are not aware of the necessity of that action. There are also many people who may not know it is wrong to travel outside of the UK without first informing DWP of the fact.

Yes there is a law that says you must inform them. But the charge they will threaten you with is not the misdemeanour of failing to advise a government authority of a circumstance that you were supposed to advise, but the quite serious crime of fraud.

As always, our advice if you should find yourself in such a situation is to do nothing and speak to nobody until you have spoken with us.

Hylton-Potts is a London based Law Firm with more than two decades of experience in dealing with Benefit Fraud cases. Our London offices are easily accessible from all airports serving London or alternatively, we are also available for Skype conferences at our London offices.

We can also be reached by a regular phone call at 020 7381 8111 (overseas +4420 7381 8111) or by sending an email to [email protected].

We would be interested in your comments, so please get in touch with your own thoughts in these types of cases and possibly your own experiences.