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Internet crackdown on welfare cheats

FACEBOOK and Twitter are being used by investigators to crack down on benefit fraud.

Revenue and welfare officials are trawling the social networking sites in a bid to save millions on handouts.

More than 7,000 tip-offs have already been received from members of the public in the major clampdown on social welfare fraud.

The use of social networking sites, such as Facebook, Twitter and Bebo is proving to be a sophisticated tool for fraud investigators at the Department of Social Protection.

More than two million claims for social welfare are made each year and the Department shells out payments to over one million people every week.

More than 600 staff are involved in fraud control, and the Department has revealed to the Herald that investigators are turning to Facebook and Twitter for additional evidence for their probes.

Between January and August, 2,523 tip-offs were phoned in by the public and 713 sent in by letter. However, since the beginning of the year the Department has created a website facility to make it easier to report fake claimants.

Over 4,000 reports have been made through this website facility between January and August this year.

“Since early 2010, the Department of Social Protection website facilitates making online anonymous reports of suspected abuse of schemes,” a representative said. “All reports are dealt with in confidence.”

Separately, anonymous reports are also made directly to scheme sections and public offices.

These are not included in the 7,256 total. “Ensuring that the right person is paid the right amount of money at the right time is an integral part of the day-to-day work of the Department of Social Protection,” a representative added.

While the representative said social networking sites, such as Facebook, Twitter and Bebo, are “not a systematic part of the Department's ongoing targeted fraud and error control activities”, it was confirmed that they are a probe tool.

“Department of Social Protection staff will occasionally refer to sites to follow up on reports from members of the public referring to various sites,” the representative said.

It's believed that single mothers who enter their status as “in a relationship” or have photos of their “other half ” may be subject to scrutiny.

Inspectors regularly call out to homes of welfare recipients to investigate if they are telling the truth but do not pry into their personal effects.

“As a matter of course, social welfare inspectors do not ask to check customers’ wardrobes,” they added.

A recent probe into jobseekers’ allowance found that 11pc were receiving incorrect benefit amounts. The survey, which looked at 1,000 random cases, revealed that 3pc of these cases were suspected fraud while errors by officials accounted for 4.1pc.

The review conducted by social welfare investigators also found that 4.1pc of recipients examined were claiming too little.

The report said that the Department of Social Protection had recorded overpayments of welfare entitlements totalling €66.8m in 2009 and the department was able to recover €32.9m of the money that had been overpaid.

Minister for Social Protection Eamon O Cuiv has stepped up the campaign against social welfare abuse.

He revealed he intends to tackle the short-term costs and also to shake up the system by taking a long-term, radical approach to the entire social welfare operation.