Monday 18 December 2017

Facial recognition software catches serial fraudsters

Niamh O’Donoghue, secretary general of the Department of Social Protection
Niamh O’Donoghue, secretary general of the Department of Social Protection
Shane Phelan

Shane Phelan

More than 60 welfare fraudsters who had been using multiple false identities have been caught using new facial recognition software.

They included one person who had developed up to 10 false identities to claim benefits.

The fraudsters had received more than €1m between them in bogus social welfare payments before they were caught, the Dáil's spending watchdog was told.

The facial recognition software is being used in conjunction with the new public service card, which is being rolled out to three million people around the country.

Department of Social Protection secretary general Niamh O'Donoghue told the Public Accounts Committee that some of the cases had been "very serious" and had resulted in court cases and custodial sentences.

Around 1.4 million cards have been issued to date and the plan is to have three million issued by the end of next year in a project costing €24m.

The card was first announced in 2010 as a way of allowing easier access to public services by cutting down on red tape.

Each recipient has key personal information encoded on the card.

They also have to undergo a robust registration process during which their facial image is taken.

Facing question from the committee members yesterday, Ms O'Donoghue said she was confident the facial recognition software was working accurately. She said it would prove to have significant value over time both in terms of catching fraudsters and as a deterrent.

The facial recognition software could not be circumvented by bogus claimants wearing glasses or otherwise changing their appearance, she said.

As well as the fraud that was uncovered, Ms O'Donoghue said an additional €1.5m had been saved through other claims being stopped since the card was introduced.

While the new card would be a valuable tool in the fight against fraud, Ms O'Donoghue insisted it was not a huge problem in Ireland.

"I would absolutely disagree with any suggestion that there is rampant fraud in the social welfare system," she said.

"In terms of international comparisons there is no evidence to suggest the level of fraud in Ireland is out of step or out of kilter with the level of fraud anywhere else.

"The evidence points to the fact that the vast, vast majority of social welfare recipients are receiving the payments they are entitled to."

The secretary general also told TDs there had been a major upsurge in people blowing the whistle on suspect welfare fraudsters during the recession.

This peaked at around 28,000 tip-offs in 2012.

She estimated around a fifth of tip-offs ended up being of value to the department.

Irish Independent

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