Monday 14 October 2019

Haunted by 'phantom' fraud

One of the most bizarre, not to say ghoulish, forms of fraud is the case of the phantom pensioners.

But unlike the ghost estates and other consequences of the financial crash, fraudulent claims for money belonging to persons who have died are nothing new.

In modern times, the commonest target for exploitation -- to say nothing of mere negligence or carelessness -- has been the social welfare system.

Attempts to defraud the system have sparked very strange events, like the affair of the late Gerry Donnelly's pension in 2007.

His 100th birthday fell in April of that year. The case came to light when the authorities were preparing to send him the usual presidential bounty for centenarians.

They found that he had died in 1984, and ever since then a friend had been collecting his pension.

A 23-year scam must be most unusual, but there is abundant evidence of numerous frauds of a similar, if lesser, kind.

In the two years 2009 and 2010, 9,850 dead pensioners "received" a total of €18.4m from the Department of Social Protection.

Unfortunately, the department cannot say how much of this money it has recovered. It does say that more than €7m has been recovered from the estates of dead pensioners "in recent years".

Can this shortage of information have anything to do with the inadequacy of computer systems in government departments, including Social Protection?

If so, the public is entitled to know what plans are in train to overcome the problems.

In the meantime, it is some comfort to learn that the department now gets instant notification of deaths from the General Registrar's Office as soon as a death is registered.

Officials expect that this will prevent "large-scale fraud". But we have still to learn what precisely is the scale of the fraud and how it will be combated.

One long-established method is investigating anonymous tip-offs, which for various reasons have increased enormously since the economic turbulence began, to more than 16,000 by the end of November this year.

The investigators have no easy task. Nearly 4,000 allegations were dismissed because of "lack of information" or because no welfare payment was being made.

One can only wonder at the psychology of people who make false allegations of this kind, causing annoyance and expense and a waste of public servants' time.

Social Protection Minister Joan Burton has promised a crackdown on social welfare fraud, and huge savings. She will get no help from interference by busybodies and malicious persons.

Irish Independent

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