Dutch scour social networking websites in pursuit of fraudsters


IT SOUNDS like an urban myth but it is not: cash-strapped local authorities in the Netherlands have begun using social networking sites such as Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn to hunt down social welfare cheats – in the first anti-fraud campaign of its kind in the world.

The scheme is already being operated on a trial basis by 10 local authorities, including those of Amsterdam and The Hague, and is expected to cover the country by the end of the year. The aim is to stamp out fraudulent claims, which in 2010 cost the Dutch taxpayer almost €120 million.

The councils are working with a specialist Amsterdam research firm, using the type of computer software previously deployed only in counterterrorism, monitoring internet traffic for keywords and cross-referencing any suspicious information with digital lists of social welfare recipients.

Among the giveaway terms, apparently, are “holiday” and “new car”. If the automated software finds a match between one of these terms and a person claiming social welfare payments, the information is passed on to investigators to gather real-life evidence.

One offender recently brought to book was a Dutch artist with significant debts and in receipt of state benefits. When he disappeared briefly, he was tracked down by following his daughter’s tweets, which revealed he was on holiday in France, and even gave his arrival and departure dates.

Her postings on the Dutch social networking site hyves.nl yielded more, including the address of the friend’s holiday home where he was staying, allegedly selling his paintings locally on the black market.

What the system does essentially, therefore, is point the authorities in the right direction and ensure their detection resources are used as effectively as possible.

So far, says Wilfred van Roij, founder of the research company Com-Connect Digitale Opsporing, 70 per cent of cases investigated have uncovered fraud, generating significant savings for local authorities and significant penalties for the perpetrators.

Using the internet to search for information is not new, of course, but using information freely available on social networking sites is, says van Roij.

“It’s not just government departments and local authorities who are using our expertise: it’s financial services companies and debt collection agencies as well. Insurers, in particular, are becoming very interested in browsing social networking sites.”

Social welfare fraud in the Netherlands cost €119 million last year and 82,000 people gave misleading information, said junior social affairs minister Paul de Krom. “This is something we can simply no longer afford,” he warned.