Tuesday 23 July 2019

Chasing the cheats: My day with the welfare fraud police

Five officials from the Department of Social Protection's Special Investigations Unit (SIU) cast long shadows on the Bandon Road in Cork as they watch the city-bound traffic building by dawn's light.

"This was the location of the famous Tooreen ambush in 1920," observes team leader Brian before walking out to meet a garda car – the signal for the others to pick up clipboards and start their day.

The random checkpoint is designed to catch unsuspecting dole claimants on their way to work. Within minutes, the SIU has a motley fleet of unmarked vans lined up at the side of the road.

At the first vehicle, two investigators ask the driver and passenger to step away from one another so they can interview them separately. The driver says they're on their way to work. The passenger, an eastern European, says they are going to his friend's house to fix a faulty computer. It emerges that he is claiming benefit. He is informed that his payments are being stopped immediately. He does not seem to realise what has just happened.

"My money. . . is being stopped? So no more money?"

Conflicting stories are common among van passengers today, and one man even appears to have forgotten his real name. In the hour-long operation, 32 vehicles are stopped and yield nine "leads". At least two people have their payments suspended immediately, and more will follow when further details are checked.

Legitimate tradesmen seem happy to be stopped. They are glad to see that something is being done about under-the-counter operators who are putting them out of business.

10.30am

We are in a meeting room with more than 30 state agents from the SIU, the gardai, the customs authorities, the Environmental Protection Agency, council waste protection and the planning department for a "joined-up" operation of the sort that has proved effective in the southern region.

They are preparing to raid two properties suspected of being part of an illicit scrap metal operation.

The owner has previous form with the authorities, and customs data shows he has been importing vast quantities of machinery – also evidenced by aerial photos. The SIU will be looking for working welfare claimants.

When we get there, nobody is home, but the front door of the house is ajar and the windows are open.

We count upwards of 80 tractors, most of them in undriveable condition, and there are more than 20 at the second, smaller site.

There are no signs of parts being stripped. The officials are bamboozled. Is this nothing more than an extreme case of tractor hoarding?

With nothing to show for this operation, we're back on the road.

1.30pm

We ARe observing a business premises in Cork where construction workers are busy on site. The SIU don site safety clothing and move in to quiz the 10 workers present.

Half of them are part of a team shipped in from Poland and will go home when the job is completed. They are legitimate employees. One Irish worker on the site is claiming dole and his details are noted.

2.30pm

Sean is making house calls in a large Cork city satellite town where he has been observing a number of suspects. At the first house the occupants say the person he is looking for has not lived there in three years. He has been using a false address, and his jobseeker allowance is suspended. At the second doorstep there is no answer, but the sight of someone peeping out of a top window arouses curiosity. We call back five minutes later and the man's wife answers. Her husband is "out visiting friends" and will not be back until 9pm.

The foreign national worked for a construction firm here years ago, and Sean believes the firm kept him on the books over many years after he returned home, paying only his tax and PRSI to enable him to return with his family to claim stamps for years of work that did not exist. Now the man is claiming all the benefits he can, and Sean suspects he is also working. Sean also has photos to show the new car he has recently bought – a luxury marque – and evidence that he travels abroad on a regular basis. This investigation will continue.

5.30pm

Back in the department office, Brian is rummaging among the files kept on each claimant. Most leads gleaned on the road must be cross-checked with the files and with other agencies for signs of work or wealth. I ask about the numbers of foreign nationals involved in fraud. "We've seen a few of them today, but overall they probably only make up around 10pc," he says.

He says a large number of the successful investigations occur thanks to tip-offs. He shows me some incredibly detailed letters offering income and spending details. "We're talking about people next door, people living in the same house. We're talking about partners scorned. Attitudes have changes in Ireland to welfare fraud."

6.45pm

WE HAVE arrived in a small recession-hit town where many main street shops are no longer trading. Tonight's operation involves spot-checks on eight fast-food restaurants.

One outlet is run by a foreign businessman and his European wife. SIU members say marriages between nationals of their countries are commonly arranged. He gets an EU passport, she gets money and sometimes participation in his business.

They will often have children to underline their legitimacy.

Here the inspectors find multiple issues with both employer and employees.

He does not have proper wage records and his wife is working while claiming jobseeker allowance.

In an Irish-owned premises, two workers who the owner claims are his daughters turn out not to be. He has not been paying PRSI.

In a Chinese takeaway, the delivery guy is on jobseeker allowance, while in an Indian restaurant another worker is claiming welfare.

Only two out of eight premises visited have no issues. A number of claims will be cut off as a result of this operation.

For this day's work, the Irish taxpayer will save €75,000 in fraudulent claims over the course of a year.

"The scale of the problem is simply massive," says Brian.

"With the limited resources we have at our disposal, we can only make a small impression. But we do our best."

Irish Independent

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