Centrelink fraud (sometimes also referred to as social security fraud) is taken very seriously by the courts. Claiming Centrelink benefits to which you are not entitled is an indictable offence. This means you could be prosecuted, and may receive a large fine and even imprisonment.
Defrauding the government is seen as “stealing from the public purse”, whereby your dishonest claim for benefits is taking government funds away from those who need it most – low income families and individuals who rely on Centrelink payments to get by.
Examples of Centrelink fraud might include:
- Claiming a Centrelink payment (e.g. Newstart or Youth Allowance) when you are not entitled to one;
- Making false statements (e.g. exaggerated medical conditions);
- Submitting false documents and forged pay slips; and
- Under-reporting income.
If you have been charged with Centrelink fraud, you may be liable to large fines, imprisonment, and a criminal record, which would make it very difficult for you to find employment in the future. If you have been charged with Centrelink fraud, you should seek advice from a qualified criminal defence lawyer immediately.
During the 2011-12 financial year, 57% of people prosecuted for Centrelink fraud were sentenced to immediate imprisonment. The average fine for the 5 year period between 2007 and 2012 was over $5,000. The fines ranged from $100 to $30,000, depending on the amount of money defrauded and the period of time over which it occurred.
Not only are the fines and prison terms serious, suggesting the Courts take a hard stance against Centrelink fraudsters, but Centrelink is one of the world leaders in fraud detection and prosecution. A 2011 study suggested that Centrelink, through its anti-fraud measures such as data analysis, public tip-offs, recovery actions and investigations, has become extremely efficient at stopping welfare fraud.
In 2008-9, Centrelink recovered nearly $250 million in fraudulently claimed income. A further 5,000 matters were referred to the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions, and an average of $4,300 was recouped from those prosecuted.
Do not be misled into believing Centrelink will not pursue you because you have only defrauded a ‘small amount’ from the government. Any amount fraudulently acquired is punishable by the Courts, and if you have been charged with Centrelink fraud, you should contact an experienced defence lawyer as soon as possible.
Defrauding Centrelink is seen as stealing from the national government, so it is prosecuted by the Commonwealth rather than the State prosecutor, using the Criminal Code Act 1995, which applies to all States and Territories in Australia. You will most likely be charged under either section 135.2 (obtaining a financial advantage) or under section 134.2 (obtaining a financial advantage by deception).
If you have defrauded Centrelink, you may be charged under section 134.2 – obtaining a financial advantage by deception. If you are found guilty, the maximum penalty is 10 years imprisonment. You may instead, or also, receive a fine between $10,000 and $100,000 and be made to repay the benefit to Centrelink. You are also likely to receive a conviction, which will make it difficult for you to find future employment.
However, there are defences to a charge under section 134.2. The offence requires the Commonwealth prosecutor to show that the accused has ‘deceived’ the Commonwealth entity (Centrelink), and done so ‘dishonestly’, resulting in a financial advantage to the accused.
It must be shown that you intentionally engaged in conducted that deceived Centrelink into giving you a payment you were not entitled to. If you have been charged with defrauding Centrelink over a long period of time, the prosecution may need to show all incidents of deception. An expert criminal lawyer will be able to separate all the charges and ensure you are not improperly prosecuted for entitlements you may in fact have been entitled to.
The charge under section 135.2 (obtaining a financial advantage) is slightly broader. This is because the Commonwealth prosecutor does not need to show that the accused deliberately deceived Centrelink, dishonestly making payment claims. The prosecution need only show that the accused engaged in conduct in order to obtain a financial advantage, knowing or believing that they were not entitled to the financial advantage. Because there is no “deception” element, the prosecution can show that the accused did receive a benefit, knowing that they should not have.
An example of this would be where an incorrect payment has been made to the accused, and the accused has accepted it knowing that they are not entitled to it. There need not be deliberate action by the accused to receive the benefit. Making false claims and under-reporting income also apply to this section.
If you are found guilty of a section 135.2 offence, the maximum penalty is 12 months imprisonment. You may be charged even if you did not receive the payment yourself, but it was received by someone else whom you knew or believed was not entitled to the payment.
What to do
If Centrelink believes you have committed fraud, it will launch an investigation to see which payments you have fraudulently received, and for how long you have deceived the government. You may be requested to attend a video interview to discuss your conduct and entitlements. Before attending, you should contact an experienced criminal lawyer, as anything you say in the interview may be used against you if the matter is referred to the Commonwealth prosecutor and proceeds to Court.
If you have been charged with Centrelink Fraud you should immediately seek legal representation. You may have defences to your charges, or Centrelink may have incorrectly assessed your payments.
Contact an experienced criminal lawyer today. The sooner you refer your matter to a legal expert, the better your chances of achieving a favourable outcome in your case.