MORE than €18m was paid out in pensions during the past two years to people who were dead, the Irish Independent has learned.
Nearly 10,000 'phantom pensioners' were only discovered when the Department of Social Protection cross-checked its pension payments against the death records held by the General Register Office.
The pension payments were made largely because there is a three-month 'grace period' after a person's death before the next of kin is legally obliged to inform the department so that it can cancel the pension.
But in some cases, relatives or friends deliberately set out to defraud the State by continuing to claim a pension after a death.
In the most extreme cases, pensions had been paid for more than two decades after the person had died.
One of the cases in the past two years concerned a family member who continued to collect the pension for their dead relative for two years, gathering €30,000 in total.
According to figures supplied by the department and the state spending watchdog, there were total "overpayments" of €10.6m in 2009 and at least €7.8m last year.
In total, payments were made in respect of 9,850 dead pensioners over the two years.
The department has legal powers to demand repayment from relatives or friends who have claimed pensions for those who have died.
However, there were no figures available on how much of the €18.4m that was erroneously paid out in the past two years has since been successfully reclaimed.
The department blamed the lack of accurate information on "shortcomings" in its records.
However, it said that more than €7m had been recovered from the estates of dead pensioners in recent years.
The department is now getting immediate notification of deaths from the General Registrar's Office as soon as a person's death is registered. A spokesperson said this would prevent large-scale fraud in the future.
However, families still have up to three months to register a death, which means erroneous payments are likely to continue, at least for short periods of time.
The focus on 'phantom pensioners' has increased following a number of recent high-profile court cases.
Last year, a judge described as "amazing" the ease with which an elderly man had been able to claim a dead friend's pension for 23 years.
Patrick McLoughlin (66), from Ballyfermot in Dublin, was given a three-year suspended sentence after defrauding the State of more than €136,000.
The fraud was only discovered because welfare staff were preparing to make the "presidential centenarian bounty payment" to McLoughlin's deceased friend, Gerry Donnelly, whose 100th birthday would have been in April 2007. Mr Donnelly had died in 1984.
McLoughlin was arrested in June 2007 after gardai viewed CCTV footage of him collecting Mr Donnelly's pension.
An Post, which made the payments, repaid the Department of Social Protection. McLoughlin has committed to repay An Post at the rate of €40 a week.
Separately, it emerged yesterday that there has been a sharp rise in social welfare tip-offs for suspected fraud.
Anonymous tip-offs to the Department of Social Protection increased from about 600 in 2005 to more than 16,000 this year.
Complaints have crept up gradually since the recession began, but increased six-fold between 2008 and 2009 to reach 6,429. That figure then doubled in 2010, before reaching 16,142 by the end of November.
Full figures for this year are not yet available.
Of the 16,142 complaints:
- Over 7,000 were about claimants allegedly getting unemployment benefits while still in work.
- 4,312 were about alleged breaches of the cohabitation rules for single parents.
- 830 focussed on people suspected of claiming benefits while living outside Ireland.
Welfare payments cannot be stopped because of an anonymous report. However, such tip-offs can lead to a review of a person's entitlements to benefits.
This year, more than 12,000 of the tip-offs were sent for further examination, while almost 4,000 were dismissed due to a lack of information or because no welfare payment was actually being made.