Council says 'Tell on the cheats in your street'
FRAUD investigators have launched a £20,000 campaign to expose benefit cheats – by urging residents to shop their neighbours.
Stoke-on-Trent City Council's year-long crackdown aims to root out people claiming benefits and council tax discounts illegally.
It will focus on housing tenancy fraud, which sees tenants illegally sub-letting council properties, lying about their circumstances to claim accommodation, or leaving council homes lying empty.
Under the authority's "spot the cheater" campaign, billboards, posters, pay-and-display parking tickets and buses will all be used to spread the message and encourage residents to report fraud.
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Council leaders have also agreed to spend a further £190,000 on anti-fraud measures to bolster teams responsible for benefits assessments and investigations.
Paul Bicknell, corporate fraud manager at the city council, said: "It isn't just the council being ripped off, it's the citizens of Stoke-on-Trent.
"We rely on the public as they see things first-hand. They are going to know if a council house in their street is empty, or if someone is claiming to live alone and has somebody living with them.
"There are 19,300 council houses in the city and the Government estimates that anywhere between two and six per cent of them are being unlawfully occupied.
"That means there are 3,000 people on our waiting list with a genuine need, and taxpayers are having to pay £219 per week to put people with an urgent need in temporary accommodation."
The Sentinel revealed earlier this year how more than £3.7 million in illegal claims is being recovered through the courts.
There were 59 prosecutions and 91 penalties and cautions for housing and tax fraud in 2010/11, with overpayments of £505,181 identified.
This rose to to 68 prosecutions and 97 penalties, with £716,000 in overpayments for 2011/12.
Last year a total of 1,421 people were discovered claiming a 25 per cent single person's discount on council tax despite not being entitled to it, costing the council £519,415 in underpaid tax.
At least 73 people have been prosecuted for claiming to live at separate addresses to their partners, resulting in £1.8 million in benefits overpayments.
More than 44 illegally-held council properties have also been recovered, with court action pending in more cases.
Councillor Paul Shotton, the city council's deputy leader, said: "Genuine and honest claimants, council tax payers and council tenants shouldn't have to foot the bill for people who cheat the system.
"We will not tolerate fraud in any guise. It's even more critical at times such as this, when we need to protect our limited funds to deliver much-needed services.
"Cheats need to know they can run, but can't hide. People can contact us in total confidence, and their information will be investigated."
Marie Mitchell, chairman of Fegg Hayes residents' association, believes residents feeling the pinch as a result of council spending cuts will be more likely to report suspected fraud.
She said: "I think that people are getting fed up of the amount of benefits being claimed illegally.
"Personally I think it's time they were taken to task and, with everything that is going on at the moment, people will be more likely to report it.
"Everybody is having a hard time and some are finding it difficult to put food on the table. A lot of residents will have reached the end of the line because they work hard and think fraud is unfair."
Anyone who suspects fraud is asked to call the city council's fraud investigators on 01782 236800 or visit www.stoke.gov.uk/reportfraud.