When a person is suspected of benefit fraud, they may be placed under heavy surveillance, often heavier than the sort of surveillance afforded to those suspected of tax avoidance. Due to the variety of ways in which a person may defraud the benefits system, several surveillance types may be used. By far, the most common surveillance type is monitoring and photographic evidence gathering, but other types of surveillance may be brought into use should the case call for it.
When would surveillance be used to detect benefit fraud?
If an individual is suspected of dishonestly claiming to live alone when living with a partner or spouse, the easiest way to prove this is to establish a pattern of movement that proves beyond reasonable doubt that the person doesn't live alone. The only way to do this is by gathering evidence that supports that pattern; for example, by photographing the same person leaving and entering the home frequently.
Similarly, for those claiming job-seekers allowance while working, photographic evidence of them either performing work or conducting a routine that suggests they are working (for example, going to the same office every day for an extended period). "When you are doing surveillance, you have to remain covert," says investigator Colin Stevens in an interview with The Guardian. "For lone parents, income support is done as a household. If a lone parent is not working, she will get income support of £90 a week, housing benefit and council tax. But if there's another adult living with them and working, they should declare it," explains Colin.
If the woman is found to be living with someone working more than 16 hours a week, the household will lose income support and probably housing benefits, council tax benefits, free school meals, dental help, school uniform help and free prescriptions.
Types of surveillance
A lot of intelligence leading to benefit fraud convictions comes from the public. Neighbours, former partners, employers and even the police may contact the Department for Work and Pensions if they suspect someone is fraudulently claiming benefits. Fraudulent claims may see individuals receiving disability benefits while working, claiming more than their entitlement due to being dishonest about their living situation or simply not declaring a change in circumstances which may affect their entitlement.
Once an investigator has a reasonable suspicion of fraud, they will begin by gathering supporting evidence. In many cases, this may be available to them already, for example, if a claimant is working, paying tax and has forgotten to tell the DWP. They will typically begin monitoring suspected fraudulent claimants if the evidence isn't readily available. An investigator will typically use a powerful video camera to gather sufficient evidence.
They may also use a body worn spy camera to capture someone working when they shouldn't or performing an activity that conflicts with a disability claim.
Benefit fraud surveillance and the law
Its illegal for a government agency to surveil citizens without cause. In the case of benefit fraud detection, special RIPA (Regulation of Investigatory Powers) requests must be signed off before an investigator can even conduct a drive past to scope out a location.
"With the technology we have available to us, we have the powers to request information from banks, mortgage companies, utility companies and even student loans," said Swansea City Council investigations manager Tal Davies in an interview with Wales Online. In the same interview, Kevin McGrath, South Wales unit fraud manager, explained how far their powers may extend. "Our surveillance would normally involve waiting outside his house and following him to his place of work." Investigators have a couple of tricks they use to establish patterns of behaviour.
Frosted windows on a car suggest it has been parked at an address overnight. This is often a strong sign to an investigator that the car's owner has established a pattern of staying at a certain address. While taking the bins out may land a fraudulent claimant in trouble, as it suggests they are living at an address rather than visiting.
If you suspect you're being unduly monitored or subject to surveillance, find out about your rights in our guide to the law surrounding surveillance equipment.