The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is coming under pressure to stop hounding unwitting victims of a multimillion-pound universal credit fraud.
In November, the Guardian revealed how benefits staff were struggling to deal with calls from people whose stolen identities had been used to make fraudulent universal credit claims in their name.
We featured the case of a Hampshire woman who had known nothing of the claim she had supposedly made until the DWP’s debt collectors demanded she repay a £1,300 advance payment.
Further victims have come forward to say they, too, are facing demands for £1,400-plus and are being told that 20% of their December pay packet will be seized by the DWP, unless they agree to set up a repayment plan – all for a debt they do not owe.
Advance payments go to applicants who cannot wait the five to six weeks it takes for a claim to be processed, and are in the form of a loan that is later recouped from wages or benefits.
Stephen Timms, who chairs the DWP Commons select committee, said the DWP “should not be behaving this way” and called for each potential fraud to be properly investigated before the staff start “taking money from innocent people”.
In March, the DWP was forced to suspend face-to-face interviews for new universal credit applicants after the system became overwhelmed. While payments went out more quickly, fraudsters were able to take advantage of the change to make claims for advance payments using stolen IDs.
Last month the BBC reported that a junior civil servant working with high street banks had noticed in May that dozens of claims for universal credit had all been paid into the same bank account.
An investigation found that as many as 100,000 fraudulent claims may have been made, although it is unclear how many of those resulted in innocent people being chased for the money. Victims of the fraud may have ignored letters sent by the DWP, assuming that it was a scam.
Hertfordshire-based IT consultant Krishna Choudhary* has been told by debt collectors he owes the DWP £1,450.
“I am not eligible to claim universal credit and have never made a claim. I have literally spent hours on the phone trying to get this issue solved, all to no avail,” he said.
“Their customer service agents say they can’t do anything, as I don’t have an account with them. To prevent them taking 20% from out of my earnings I have been forced to set up a payment plan and pay them £25, just to buy some time. Why there are no systems in place to stop this is utterly beyond me. It’s been a nightmare.”
Another victim who only wanted to be known as Fiona, described a similar experience. On one day alone she called the DWP 11 times in an attempt to get the problem resolved.
She said: “If this is as widespread an issue as some of the people I have spoken to suggest, DWP needs to admit fault and put something in place to deal with the victims. I feel they’re treating me as guilty until their investigating team prove otherwise. None of their staff seem well briefed on what’s going on, I’ve had conflicting advice and not one shred of an apology, apart from the debt team, who seem to be having a really tough time of it.”
Timms said: “The DWP told us in the summer that it was introducing safeguards to prevent the victims of fraud being forced into repayments. While the department has not been forthcoming on the scale of the problem, the number of cases we’ve heard about clearly suggests that its processes are not working as they should be. The DWP should not be behaving in this way.”
A DWP spokesperson said a new process for those caught up in this fraud has been put in place.
“Any victim of fraud will not be held liable for any debt. Instead, we will seek to recover any losses from the perpetrator. Fraud and error in the benefits system remains very low, with 96.5% of benefits paid correctly. We have updated our guidance for call handlers contacted by someone who suspects they are the victim of fraud, to ensure they are supported appropriately.”
* Not his real name
If you suspect you are a victim of fraud please call the DWP’s debt management team on 0800 916 0651 or the UC helpline on 0800 328 5644