More than 170 cases of ‘suspected identity fraud’ detected

Department of Social Protection says it made €530m in savings after reviewing payments

Some 171 cases of suspected identity fraud have been detected as a result of registrations by welfare claimants for the public services card, the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection has said.

The card system came into operation in 2012. Fewer than 30 cases of suspected identity fraud were detected last year as a result of the scheme’s implementation.

Publishing its annual report for 2017, the department said that, arising from the so-called SAFE2 identity verification processes, “a total of 171 cases of suspected identity fraud have been detected and referred for investigation”.

These cases are at various different stages of the investigation and prosecution process, it said.

During the SAFE registration, facial matching software is used to detect and deter duplicate registrations. Software performs a search of the customer’s photograph against existing photographs on the department’s database.

The public services card project, which has been criticised by privacy advocates, has cost about €60 million to date and is the subject of an investigation by the Data Protection Commission. More than 680,000 of the cards were issued last year, bringing the total issued to more than three million.

The department has an annual budget of about €20 billion and had 1,600,000 weekly payment recipients last year. It made more than 82 million individual payments during the year.

‘Control savings’

According to the annual report, the department undertook almost 755,000 reviews of claims in 2017 and realised €530 million in “control savings”, often wrongly reported as “fraud”. The control savings often arise from errors or overpayments to people receiving benefits.

The department said it had exceeded its annual target of €510 million in such savings.

Overpayments of benefit and assistance in individual cases amounted to €111 million over the course of the year. Repayments of €81 million were made in respect of overpayments during 2017 and previous years. The target was to recover €90 million in the year, the department said.

More than 300 cases were referred to the courts or to the Garda for prosecution during the year.

“At the end of the year, the department had 589 cases in the court system at various stages of the prosecution process,” it said.

Awareness campaign

It also flagged in the report a controversial "Welfare Cheats Us All" public awareness campaign promoted by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar while he was in the welfare portfolio early last year.

The campaign was designed to raise awareness of social welfare fraud and encourage members of the public to report potential cases of fraud.

In her introduction to the report, Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection Regina Doherty said her focus was "firmly on employment, pension reform, and reducing child poverty".

“I want to ensure that families are better off in work than on welfare.”

She said her specific goals for the coming year included pensions reform, enhanced working conditions for unsecure workers, more benefits for the self-employed, and reform of the Gender Recognition Act.