William Eichler 08 December 2016

Fighting welfare fraud in real time

Fraud is a blight that will affect every organisation at some point. Where ever there is money, there will be fraudsters.

According to some estimates, the combined annual loss to central and local government resulting from fraudulent practices - ranging from tax evasion to benefit scams - is between £20bn and £49bn. This is bad at the best of times, but it is worse when the public purse is already strained.

One of the Government’s primary weapons for stamping out fraudulent behaviour is the National Fraud Initiative (NFI). This is an exercise that matches an extensive range of electronic data from 1,300 public and private sector bodies in order to identify anomalies that might indicate fraud. When an anomaly is uncovered, the NFI works with the stakeholders involved to try and weed out any wrong-doing.

As Darren Shillington, senior data matching manager at the NFI, explains, they look at things ‘such as a housing benefit claimant who has payroll income they’ve not declared, a social housing tenant who may be subletting their property and is actually living elsewhere, right through to things like a pension being paid to a person who’s passed away.’

Since the NFI was initiated in the mid-1990s, it has enabled participants to identify fraud and overpayments totalling in excess of £1.39bn - a not inconsiderable sum. However, they are now taking it further. The Government wishes to take the data used for fraud detection and utilise it in what Mr Shillington describes as a more ‘proactive, preventative way.’

This was the message the NFI’s 2016 National Report conveyed to local authorities. Detecting fraud is important, but preventing it from entering the system in the first place makes more sense. ‘Two or three years ago the NFI was very much a detection model,’ Mr Shillington explains, ‘and now it’s got much more upfront preventative and flexible solutions.’

In order to help develop these solutions, the NFI has teamed up with Synectics Solutions, a company that specialises in building complex data management and software products. ‘Synectics is the contracted IT provider but it’s more than that; it’s a partnership that brings together Synectics’ expertise and their experience from the financial sector,’ says Mr Shillington.

Together they produced AppCheck. This is a digital tool which enables local authorities to check the legitimacy of an application in real time. When someone applies for, say, housing benefit, the council will be able to access the NFI’s data immediately to look for anomalies. This means they can prevent fraudulent claims at the point of application rather than spending time and effort chasing it down later.

Trial results appear to be promising. The City of London Corporation’s anti-fraud and investigation team joined with their housing allocations team to see how effective AppCheck would be at tackling social housing fraud. The product enabled the Corporation to identify over £180,000 worth of fraud during the trial period and they found it easy to integrate with their existing processes.

‘The trial of the AppCheck solution was a great success that proved itself very early on by allowing us to identify fraud that would have otherwise potentially not been detected,’ says the Corporation’s anti-fraud manager, Chris Keesing. AppCheck has now been rolled out as part of the team’s operational processes, and the City of London is assessing other areas where it can be deployed - a relatively simple process because no IT or systems deployments are needed.

There is another advantage to using tools such as AppCheck beyond just fraud prevention. ‘The other big thing is about the fast tracking of the vulnerable individuals who make genuine applications,’ explains Louise Williams, Synectics Solutions’ product manager. ‘The fact that we can verify that particular application a lot quicker to give those reference points to say this individual is who they say they are, they are entitled to this particular service or benefit.’

Just as a local authority using AppCheck would be able to use NFI data to weed out fraudsters, they would also be able to verify legitimate applications quickly. As Ms Williams puts it, this ‘helps local authorities to put their resources in the right places and manage those applications faster and more efficiently.’

Preventing fraud at the point of application is, then, beneficial on two fronts. You save by stopping illegitimate claims and you save by expediting legitimate applications. It is, effectively, win-win.

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