Social welfare fraud detection is down significantly so far this year despite a prominent campaign launched by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar encouraging the public to report cases of suspected fraud.
There were 16,225 social welfare overpayments in 2016 which the Department of Social Protection judged to be as a result of fraud. This works out at 1,352 a month. During the first nine months of 2017, the department uncovered 928 cases of fraud a month, a drop of 31 per cent.
Last April, during his campaign for Taoiseach and leadership of Fine Gael, then minister for social protection Mr Varadkar launched the "Welfare Cheats Cheat Us All" campaign which encouraged people to act as "whistleblowers" and report suspected welfare fraud.
Two months later, the new Minister for Social Protection Regina Doherty said there had been a 50 per cent increase in reports of social welfare fraud following the campaign.
But new figures released to The Irish Times show the increased reporting rate is failing to translate into the increased detection of actual fraud cases.
While the detection of individual fraud cases is down since last year, the amount of money they involve has increased slightly, suggesting the department is targeting more serious cases.
A department spokeswoman said it is too early in the year to draw “definitive conclusions” but that “it is possible to identify fewer lower value assessments being recorded as fraud and a greater number of higher value cases in 2017 compared with a year earlier”.
In 2016 a total of €41 million worth of fraud was detected, an average of €3.42 million a month. In the first eight months of 2017 this figure increased to €3.85 million a month, despite involving less cases overall.
The department defines fraud as when a claimant wilfully fails to disclose or update their circumstances in a manner that affects their entitlements. Overpayments due to errors are classified differently.
According to the figures, this year has also seen a drop in the severity of punishments handed out for low-level social welfare fraud. Last year 21.6 per cent of those convicted of low-level welfare fraud received the Probation Act, meaning they did not receive a criminal record or significant punishment. This rose to 36.7 per cent for the first eight months of 2017.
Four people received prison sentences in 2016 and 17 received suspended sentences. In the first eight months of 2017 no one received a prison term and three people have received suspended sentences.
The sentencing figures refer to minor fraud. More serious cases, including identity fraud and offending over a long period of time, are referred to the Garda for prosecution. The department does not keep records of sentencing data in these cases.