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How fraudsters were thwarted from conning taxpayers out of £5.5m

PUBLISHED: 09:15 27 July 2018 | UPDATED: 09:15 27 July 2018

Official opening of the new Riverside building for Waveney and Suffolk council.

Official opening of the new Riverside building for Waveney and Suffolk council.

© Archant 2015

Fraudsters illegally trying to buy council homes and claim benefits they were not entitled to could have cost taxpayers £5.5m - but were stopped by wily investigators.

Teams of qualified financial investigators working across Ipswich, Suffolk Coastal and Waveney councils have been brought in as part of a “zero-tolerance” approach to fraud.

In the past year, they have prevented £1.9m of potential fraud in Ipswich and £3.6m across Suffolk Coastal and Waveney.

Right to Buy

The vast majority of attempted frauds were people trying to take advantage of the government’s Right to Buy scheme, which gives council house tenants a chance to buy their homes if they meet strict criteria.

In Suffolk Coastal and Waveney, attempted Right to Buy fraud accounted for £3.4m of the £3.6m saved, with the sale of 39 properties prevented.

The number prevented has partly come from an increase in Right to Buy applications, with greater numbers of people seeking to take advantage of the government expanding the scheme.

“It’s exceptionally advantageous to purchase a council house, as it is a generous discount you can receive,” said Siobhan Martin, head of audit for Ipswich Borough Council as well as Suffolk Coastal and Waveney district councils.

As well as the amount of money the councils would have lost directly as a result of the fraud, the savings include money they would have spent finding other properties to replace those sold under Right to Buy.

Zero-tolerance approach

Ms Martin said: “By stopping a fraudulent Right to Buy, that means that property is still in the housing stock and is still of great value to people who need it.”

She added that the work of the fraud investigation teams is crucial in financially challenging times.

“We’re fortunate in having dedicated corporate fraud teams and that we’ve got highly qualified investigators in those teams,” she said.

“We’ve been very focused in the last couple of years on housing frauds and making sure our council homes go to the most appropriate people that are on huge waiting lists.

“We have a zero-tolerance approach. That’s fundamental to what we’re delivering here.

“It’s very important that every single penny goes to the right place.”

How investigators prevent fraud

Ms Martin the financial investigators’ intelligence gathering operation had grown, particularly by sharing information with other agencies.

However most the fraud is prevented by good, old-fashioned detailed assessment of applications and interviewing applicants.

Those who suspect fraud in Ipswich should call the borough council’s fraud hotline on 01473 433999.

Those who suspect it in Waveney or Suffolk Coastal should dial 01394 444444.

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