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If you have been accused of benefit fraud, understanding what happens during the benefit fraud investigation process can both help you plan for your defence as well as give you some peace of mind about what exactly investigators will be looking for. Undoubtedly, this is a stressful time but with the right information you can ensure that your case has the best chance of being resolved in your favour. Despite some investigations appearing as a ‘witch hunt’, the benefit fraud investigation process is not actually an attempt by the government to trick anyone, make them admit something they didn’t do, or to trap them into repaying benefits. The investigations team exists to make sure that those who really need benefits are getting them, and that those who do not are not able to exploit the system.
In general, benefit fraud is understood to have been committed when someone has claimed benefits to which they were not entitled on purpose, for example by not reporting a change in circumstances or by providing false information.
In this regard, benefits fraud might be committed when someone fakes an illness or injury that would prevent them from working in order to claim unemployment benefit. Benefit fraud might also be committed if someone fails to report that they are living with someone who contributes to the household income in order to protect any tax benefits they receive.
In each circumstance, what is key is that someone is receiving a benefit (a payment or a tax break, for example) that they would not ordinarily be entitled to.
If someone has reported you for benefit fraud but you are truly a genuine claimant, there is often very little to worry about. That said, it is understandable that such a situation should make you anxious, even if you know you have done nothing wrong. The first thing to do is try to remain calm. Benefit fraud investigation processes can take a long time, so it is important you stay as calm and collected as possible to minimise the impact of the investigation process on other areas of your life.
A typical benefit fraud investigation process will have several stages. These include:
1. First contact from the relevant agency
In the first instance, you will be contacted by the agency responsible for the benefit concerned. In most cases, this will be either the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC), the Service and Personnel and Veterans Agency, or your local authority. The exact mode of contact will depend on the agency concerned, the urgency of the case, and what contact information the agency has on file for you. If the agency repeatedly tries to contact you via one means of communication, say the regular post, and they receive no answer, they may then turn to another mode, for example the telephone.
2.Potential stopping of benefits
Again, depending on the exact situation at hand and what the benefit concerned covers, the relevant agency may stop your benefit during the investigation process. Unfortunately, there is little that can be done at this stage to reinstate any benefits, but you will receive a letter from the relevant agency explaining what is happening. Many charities exist to assist people who have had their benefits stopped for one reason or another, so there should always be somewhere to turn, especially if your benefit affects things like having somewhere safe to sleep or being able to feed and clothe children.
3. Potential visit by officers or requirement to attend an interview
As the investigation gets under way, it is important that the agency can obtain your side of the story. This is why they may send a Fraud Investigation Officer (FIO) to see you, or they may ask you to attend an interview.
In either case, the expectation is that you will be able to talk about your claim and justify why it is that you require such a benefit.
For example, if you have been accused of benefit fraud because you have told the government you live alone but someone has said that actually your partner lives with you, you will have to explain how often your partner visits and provide any available evidence of their visit frequency (for example, time sheets from work if they work away for a number of days a week, or text messages showing arrangements for their visits).
If you are called to an interview, this is called an ‘interview under caution’.
Whenever you speak to an official, make sure you are represented by a Solicitor, who will guide you on what to say and to what extent and detail. You must either exercise your legal right to silence or answer questions honestly to the best of your ability. If you do not know the answer to a particular question, or if you do not understand it, make sure to say so or you remain silent.
4. Further investigation and fact gathering
Once officers have contacted you, they may continue to gather facts about your case. Exactly what the officers will do depends on each case, and it could vary from surveillance to interviewing people who know you. More serious cases – such as those involving potential criminal gangs – demand a higher level of investigation, and as such it is likely that deep investigations into personal and professional lives will only occur in the most serious of cases. It is best to ask a solicitor about cases similar to yours that they may have worked on (on the understanding that they cannot divulge personal details, of course).
Once the above process is complete, the relevant agency will inform you about the outcome of the benefit fraud investigation process. While it may seem like the case is taking a long time, remember that the agencies are aware of how serious the consequences could be for you so they are trying to do the investigation as quickly as possible and with as little disruption to your life as possible. When they have concluded the investigation, they will inform you of the outcome by post or by telephone, whichever they have used to contact you in the past. At that point, if you have been found to have committed or attempted fraud, several things could happen:
If you have not been found to have committed or attempted fraud, any benefits that may have been stopped temporarily will be resumed and in the majority of cases you will be able to claim a back payment for the monies owed to you. This may be the case even if you received help from a charity or friends and family while your regular payments were stopped.
Unfortunately, it is very common in the UK for people to be reported of benefit fraud maliciously. There are thousands of people around the UK who report someone else for benefit fraud, falsely claiming that they are ripping off the benefits system.
Between 2016 and 2018, the government received over 280,000 of such reports, but not a single one of them resulted in someone getting convicted. The primary reason for this was lack of evidence.
The government is aware of how serious a matter it is to be accused of swindling the system; not only would it mean that payments are stopped (which could jeopardise things as fundamental as feeding and clothing children) but it could also mean criminal consequences for the person accused, making it harder for them to find employment and educational opportunities.
For this reason, every report is taken seriously and the government will only proceed if there is adequate evidence. If someone has accused you of benefit fraud and you are a genuine claimant, you likely have very little – if anything – to worry about.
If you or someone you care about is facing the investigation process, it helps to get professional advice about your situation. Such advice will not only help you to plan your next steps, but it is also likely to settle some major concerns you may have about the investigation and the impact(s) it may have on your day to day life. For confidential and friendly support, contact the team at Stuart Miller Solicitors today and we will arrange a no-obligation consultation to help you figure out where to turn next.