Stop Hunting Victims of Universal Credit Fraud, DWP Says | Identity theft
The Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) is under pressure to stop tracking down unwitting victims of a multi-million pound universal credit fraud.
In November, The Guardian revealed how benefits staff were struggling to process calls from people whose stolen identities had been used to make fraudulent universal credit applications on their behalf.
We have presented the case of a Hampshire woman who hadn’t known about the claim she allegedly made until DWP debt collectors asked her to pay back a deposit of Â£ 1,300.
Other victims have come forward to say that they too are facing claims over Â£ 1,400 and being told 20% of their December salary will be garnished by the DWP unless they ‘agree to put in place a repayment plan – all for a debt they don’t owe.
The advances are made to applicants who cannot wait the five to six weeks it takes for an application to be processed, and are in the form of a loan which is then clawed back on salary or benefits.
Stephen Timms, who chairs the DWP Commons select committee, said the DWP “shouldn’t behave this way” and called for every potential fraud to be properly investigated before staff start to “take money from innocent people”..
In March, the DWP was forced to suspend face-to-face interviews for new Universal Credit applicants after the system was overwhelmed. As payments were made faster, fraudsters were able to take advantage of the change to claim advance payments using stolen credentials.
Last month the BBC reported that a junior official working with Main Street banks noticed in May that dozens of universal credit applications had all been deposited into the same bank account.
An investigation found that as many as 100,000 fraudulent claims could be made, although it is not known how many of them resulted in the prosecution of innocent people for money. Victims of the fraud may have ignored the letters sent by the DWP, assuming it was a scam.
Krishna Choudhary *, an IT consultant based in Hertfordshire, was told by debt collectors that he owed the DWP Â£ 1,450.
âI am not eligible to claim universal credit and have never made a claim. I literally spent hours on the phone trying to fix this problem, to no avail, âhe said.
âTheir customer service agents say there is nothing they can do because I don’t have an account with them. To keep them from taking 20% ââof my income, I was forced to set up a payment plan and pay them Â£ 25, just to save time. Why there are no systems in place to stop this is totally beyond me. It has been a nightmare.
Another victim, who only wanted to be known as Fiona, described a similar experience. On one day, she called the DWP 11 times to try to resolve the problem.
She said: âIf this is such a widespread problem as some of the people I have spoken to suggest, the DWP needs to admit its fault and put something in place to deal with the victims. I feel like they treat me like a culprit until their investigative team proves otherwise. None of their staff seem to be knowledgeable about what is going on, I have had conflicting advice and not the slightest apology apart from the Debt Team, who seem to be going through a very difficult time.
Timms said: âThe DWP told us this summer that it was putting safeguards in place to prevent victims of fraud from being coerced into repayments. While the department has not communicated the extent of the problem, the number of cases we have heard clearly suggest that its processes are not working as they should. DWP should not behave this way.
A DWP spokesperson said a new process for those involved in the fraud has been put in place.
“Any victim of fraud will not be held responsible for any debt. Instead, we will seek to recoup any losses from the perpetrator. Frauds and errors in the benefit system remain very low, with 96.5% of benefits paid correctly. We have updated our guidelines for call managers contacted by someone who suspects they are victims of fraud, to ensure they are treated appropriately. “
* Not his real name
If you believe you have been a victim of fraud, please call the DWP debt management team on 0800 916 0651 or the UC helpline on 0800 328 5644