Social welfare fraud squad lies in wait for ‘white van man’

Beefed up team carrying out road-checks, in addition to tackling airports and takeaways

It's shortly after 9am and the benefit fraud team spots two builders working on the roof of a house in a suburban housing estate. "I've a funny feeling about this one," says one of the officers, pointing out the dormer bungalow, surrounded by scaffolding and building materials. "They've started late. The scaffolding isn't great. And the old van is often a giveaway."

A battered white Ford Transit is parked on the street, lined with neatly tended gardens and family cars. Three officers, wearing hard hats and high-vis jackets with logos of the Department of Social Protection and Revenue Commissioners, enter the property; one hangs by the driveway entrance.

“If people have something to hide, they react in different ways,” says one of the inspectors, on the way in. “They might say nothing – or they talk too much.”

The homeowner emerges. He’s on a day off from work and just helping out on the site, he says. Before long, he’s babbling about construction details, the cost of materials and his family. He can’t recall the full name of the contractor who’s employing the men onsite. He doesn’t have a number for him either.

The two other officers, meanwhile, are scouting out the rest of the property. One of the builders appears, in his mid-30s, wearing a faded Man Utd jersey. He just started work yesterday, he explains, as he stares at the ground. He admits he hasn’t got round to telling the dole office he’s back working.

Another is located crouching behind a wall upstairs; a third is found pacing around an upstairs room. The younger of the two insists he’s not being paid – he’s just helping out one of the other lads. His hand trembles slightly as he speaks.

The other says he’s just putting in a window. He’s on Jobseekers’ Allowance as well and just started work the previous Tuesday. He’s struggling to make ends meet, he says. “I don’t want to get crucified for all this,” he says, as he eventually gives over the employer’s mobile number. The fraud team’s interviewing style is firm, but courteous. They take the details of the workers.

The three builders will face questions from the local welfare office. They’re likely to end up having to pay back benefits, if it can be proved they were working on the site for longer than they claim.

If the fraud is major – above €3,000, typically – a prosecution will be considered. The employer is also likely to face questions from the Revenue Commissioners. The homeowner, however, will not face any action. “Funny, no one seemed to know the employers’ name at the beginning – but they softened out after a while,” one of the inspectors says, as the team moves onto another building site.

The fraud team is part of the Special Investigations Unit of the Department of Social Protection. In all, more than 100 officials are involved in tackling abuse of welfare schemes. This year alone, they are tasked with making savings for the State of about €70 million.

The unit works closely with fraud investigation units of other State agencies such as the Revenue, the National Employment Rights Authority and, in recent months, the Garda.

Powers of arrest

Twenty members of the force joined the national unit earlier this year and are able to use their powers of arrest where offences have been committed under criminal justice legislation.

Much of the work focuses on high risk sectors in the “grey economy” where cash tends to change hands – such as the construction and hospitality industries – or where identity fraud may feature in claiming benefits, such as at airports or ports.

A considerable volume of work is based on anonymous tip-offs. Some 21,000 reports were sent to authorities last year, up from just over 1,000 annually in the years before the economic downturn, underscoring the cultural shift in reporting suspected fraud. Most are sent using a benefit fraud form on the Department’s website.

Most tip-offs related to working while claiming benefits or lone parents alleged to be co-habiting. Informants are not required to give any information about themselves, and staff don’t delve into their motivation. “It can be everything from an angry neighbour, disgruntled former employee or a jealous ex-partner. Or there are people who are just angry at seeing their taxes going on fraud,” says an officer.

The nature of welfare fraud is changing, officials say. On buildings sites, for example, the larger projects tend to be compliant these days. Smaller-scale projects are a much higher risk. As a rule of thumb, 10 per cent to 15 per cent of employees are likely to have issues with welfare or Revenue on these sites.

Flight risk

With cheap flights, much of the focus of identify fraud has moved to airports where would-be fraudsters fly in and out of the country to sign on once a month. This work has revealed more than 100 cases over an 18-month period.

Following a blitz of building sites south of Cork city, the team sets up a road-check alongside the Garda on the main Cork-Limerick road. Today, the target is commercial vehicles.

“We’re looking for white van man,” jokes one of the officers. Any van, marked or unmarked, is pulled over. The occupants are asked by officials from welfare, the Revenue or the Garda about their work, whether they are in receipt of welfare, and names and addresses are taken.

If there’s more than one in a car, the driver and passenger are interviewed separately. All the information will be checked out later, along with the registration details.

Most drivers are happy to participate. At least one asks under what authority he’s being pulled over (all the officials carry a printout of the Social Welfare Consolidation Act with them, spelling out their powers under law).

Alarm bells

A few vans raise red flags with officers when their stories don’t match. “I’m not working,” says one passenger in a red van, with a Limerick reg. “I’m out for the drive . . . No, I’m not on the dole. I never have been.” When he’s asked what material is in the back, he says they’re off to a car-boot sale.

“We hear that a lot,” says one of the officers. In all, about 12 vans out of the 57 stopped for questioning have raised concerns about occupants’ welfare entitlement. Officials will check out their details over the coming days.

To the outsider, the work of the team raises some nettlesome questions. A heavy focus on benefit cheats, in the eyes of some, serves to demonise welfare recipients, though only a small minority are engaged in this kind of activity.

There can also be a dissonance in the resources used to target – for example – a lone parent when set against the light-touch offered to corporations whose avoidance of large tax bills deprives the taxpayer of huge resources.

Brian Kearney, manager of the department's southern division of the Special Investigations Unit, is unapologetic. His unit's work, he says, is about ensuring that scarce resources go to those who need it most.

“The welfare system is adequate, I think. A man with a wife and three children can get €400 or more a week. That’s a lot of money over the course of a year. We’re aiming to save €70 million this year,” Kearney says.

“If you’re working and have undeclared income, it’s not fair. The more we protect the system, the better protected are the people who really need it.”

Come the evening, the team’s focus switches to fast-food outlets. At an Indian takeaway in the city two counter assistants disappear out the back door when the officials arrive. One employee remains, with poor English.

He gives the employer's name and number. There's a foreign dial tone when they ring and the man at the end of the line says he's in Pakistan. His English deteriorates as the phone call progresses. "We'll need a further visit – with the gardaí this time," an officer says.

Of seven fast-food restaurants visited that evening, four are found to have issues, such as employing asylum seekers – which is banned – or failing to register employees.

“Tomorrow, it’s all paperwork,” says an officer. “This is the interesting part. It’s not all about swooping on premises. The work of securing prosecutions takes lots of phone calls, lots of paperwork and lots of patience.”