Coronavirus frauds worth almost £800,000 prevented since the start of the pandemic

Attempted coronavirus frauds with a value of almost £800,000 have been prevented by Durham County Council since the start of the pandemic.

Thursday, 26th November 2020, 6:29 pm
Updated Thursday, 26th November 2020, 6:29 pm
Attempted coronavirus frauds with a value of almost £800,000 have been prevented by Durham County Council since the start of the pandemic.

Attempted coronavirus frauds with a value of almost £800,000 have been prevented by Durham County Council since the start of the pandemic.

This week, councillors were told that fraudsters are using the Covid-19 health crisis to exploit people, businesses and public and private organisations, using sophisticated methods to callously scam people out of money.

Criminals are also using known fraud risks to attack local authorities via impersonation fraud, phishing emails and money laundering, among a number of other methods.

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Since the start of the pandemic, joint working between the council’s corporate fraud team and business rates team has helped to prevent 58 attempted frauds with a value of around £785,000.

The ‘Covid-19 fraud’ update was included in a report for the council’s Audit Committee, which was held via videolink and broadcast live on YouTube on Thursday (November 26).

Since April, business rates grants totalling £104 million have been paid to over 9,600 businesses, with the corporate fraud team playing an important role in verifying that genuine people and businesses have been receiving the financial support they need.

The team has also been verifying grants and bank details used to process the claims as well as identifying attempted frauds.

After identifying that the council had been affected by a national, large-scale organised fraud, the team worked quickly to prevent payments on £695,000 of fraudulent applications by the same organised crime gang.

The financial investigator was able to successfully freeze the fraudster’s bank account, stopping them from accessing £130,000 of business rates grants fraudulently obtained by applications to other local authorities, which were unaware they had been affected.

A further 17 fraudulent grants with a value of around £230,000 paid out by Durham County Council are now being recovered and there are 97 investigations still ongoing.

The report prepared for the Audit Committee added that the “grant conditions are such that should the council be unsuccessful in recovering these fraudulent payments, the Government will pick up these costs.”

Since it was established in 2015, the corporate fraud team has investigated more than 3,200 cases and uncovered almost £9.5 million worth of fraud.

With newly developed support packages in place to support businesses with the latest restrictions, the fraud team continues to work closely with the business rates team to prevent any further attempted frauds.

It is also leading the way in championing a new counter fraud investigator apprenticeship, which will be one of the first of these apprenticeships nationally.

Councillor Eddie Bell, chair of the Audit Committee, said: “Can I say how much I welcomed this report outlining the work of the team and everyone involved and particularly with regards to raising fraud awareness, to the range of partnership working initiatives being progressed and in relation to the Covid-19 stimulus packages made available at a time when significant pressure was placed on local authorities by government and local businesses to make these payments swiftly.

“The team played an important role in supporting the council in verifying that monies were paid out to genuine people and businesses whilst taking steps to ensure fraud and error was prevented, with any fraudulent claims identified being vigorously pursued.”

Steven Graham, the council’s fraud manager, added: “We are continuing to review best practice and innovation to hopefully keep Durham at the forefront and lead the way in the region.

“Fraud of course doesn’t stand still so we can’t and we’re constantly reviewing our risks, raising awareness and reviewing our counter fraud plans and building on partnerships.”

Councillor Andrea Patterson, cabinet member for corporate services and rural issues, welcomed the recent work of the corporate fraud team.

Speaking after the meeting, she said: “The pandemic is creating challenges for all of us and it is vital that those in most need are able to access the help and support they need.

“I am appalled that some scammers and organised crime groups are using the pandemic to target coronavirus support funding and exploit people’s financial concerns.

“I’m grateful to the corporate fraud team for its work in putting a stop to this and ensuring that the support grants are reaching those who need them.”

More information on different types of fraud and how to report it can be found on the council’s website: www.durham.gov.uk/fraud.

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