LawTalk Blog

What is social security fraud?

What is social security fraud?

You may have noticed in the news media recently that a lot of people are being charged with “obtaining a financial advantage by deception”. This is commonly in relation to Social Security or Centrelink fraud.

This is a serious offence and the penalties can have a substantial impact on a person.

The various offences that a person can be charged with regarding social security fraud are outlined in the Commonwealth Criminal Code and prosecuted by the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions (Commonwealth DPP).

The offences a person can be charged with include:

  • Obtaining property by deception
  • Obtaining a financial advantage by deception
  • General dishonesty
  • Obtaining a financial advantage

In this blog I will deal with the common charge of obtaining a financial advantage.

This charge is laid in circumstances where a person has deliberately engaged in conduct which has resulted in them obtaining a financial advantage from Centrelink that they were not entitled to receive.

"The maximum penalty for this offence is imprisonment for 12 months, the payment of a fine and the repayment of the debt to Centrelink."

The financial advantage is usually an overpayment from Centrelink which leads to a person owing a debt to Centrelink.

The maximum penalty for this offence is imprisonment for 12 months, the payment of a fine and the repayment of the debt to Centrelink.

The courts view the charge of obtaining a financial advantage as a serious offence and the risk of imprisonment for this offence is high.

What are the elements of the offence?

A person commits this offence if they:

  • engage in conduct that is dishonest; and
  • as a result of that conduct they obtain a financial advantage for themselves or another person; and
  • they knew or believed that they were ineligible to receive that financial advantage; and
  • the party that provided the financial advantage to the person was Centrelink.

Examples of conduct which constitutes this offence being committed include:

  • Not declaring income received;
  • Not declaring a change of circumstances (for example, changing from a single to de facto relationship);
  • Incorrectly declaring income (and not correcting the incorrect estimate).

A common scenario associated with social security fraud

  • Penelope is studying at university and works as a barista at ABC Café on a casual basis.
  • She receives $300 per fortnight from ABC Café and a fortnightly payment from Centrelink to complement her low income.
  • A condition of Penelope receiving the Centrelink payment is that she has to report her other income from the café to Centrelink on a fortnightly basis.
  • In a particular fortnight Penelope receives $600 from ABC Café but reports to Centrelink that she earned $300.
  • As a result of Penelope’s incorrect reporting, she receives her full Centrelink payment (now an overpayment) for the fortnight which she was not entitled to receive.
  • The reason Penelope reported that she only earned $300 was because she needed the money to buy beers at the uni bar and she knows that if she reported her correct earnings she would not have received her usual payment from Centrelink.

The above is a clear example of someone obtaining an advantage to which they were not entitled.

Is every Social Security overpayment considered to be fraud?

It’s important to remember that not everyone who receives an overpayment has committed an offence. There are defences that are available depending on the circumstances of how and why the overpayment has occurred.

Before a person is charged with an offence, Centrelink will usually ask the person to attend an interview or to provide a statement. If Centrelink asks you to attend an interview you should seek legal advice prior to attending the interview.

If you are charged with obtaining a financial advantage from the Commonwealth it is important that you seek legal assistance as quickly as possible to maximise the options that are available to you in terms of negotiating or defending the charge or receiving a lenient penalty upon your guilty plea.

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Get in touch with today's blog writer:
Nestoras Alexandropoulos

Senior Associate in Family Law  and  Criminal and Police Matters

Please note, this Blog is posted in Adelaide, South Australia by Andersons Solicitors. It relates to South Australian legislation. Andersons Solicitors is a medium sized law firm servicing metropolitan Adelaide and regional South Australia across all areas of law for individuals and businesses.

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