During the coronavirus crisis, the Universal Credit system “stood up remarkably well” to challenges that included huge increases in claims and a rise in coordinated fraud, according to welfare minister Will Quince.
In recent written correspondence with parliament's Work and Pensions Select Committee, Quince acknowledged that the past 18 months have brought a rise in targeted attempts to defraud the benefits system. Asked about “patterns and trends” in fraud experienced by the Department for Work and Pensions during the pandemic, the minister pointed to an increase in identity hijacking.
ID hijack takes place when scammers claim benefits under someone else’s details. The suspension of face-to-face interviews with claimants as a result of the pandemic presented fraudsters with a greater opportunity to attempt such methods.
In an estimate made late last year, Quince said that, as of 8 December 2020, 5,894 suspected cases of ID hijack had been referred in the previous six months to a dedicated Stolen Identity Team at the DWP.
The department has previously faced criticism from committee chair Stephen Timms for its response to successful hijackings – in particular, the vigour with which it has pursued those whose identity has been stolen.
But, in a letter sent to Timms last month, Quince praised the response of anti-fraud teams, claiming that only a very small proportion of attempted scams were successful.
“During the pandemic, there has been an increase in attempts to defraud the system through practices such as ID hijacks. However, the vast majority of these have been thwarted,” he said.
“The fraud we have seen enter the system has in the main been by individual claimants misrepresenting their circumstances.”
Quince previously revealed in a written parliamentary answer that “cyber colleagues prevented a large attack on our systems by organised criminals” in May 2020.
“This prevented substantial sums being paid out to scammers,” he added.
In his latest missive to the work and pensions committee, Quince praised his colleagues for their overall response to coronavirus, including processing 4.5 million new claims for Universal Credit since the start of the first national lockdown in March 2020. Despite this added workload – which required rapid recruitment or redeployment of staff – processing errors had actually declined in 2020-21, he said.
“UC has stood up remarkably well to the huge influx of new claims,” the minister said.
“The drop in UC official error compared to previous years is testament to how, after only a short training period, thousands of inexperienced staff were able to process a huge spike in UC claims with minimal error.”
Sam Trendall is editor of CSW's sister title PublicTechnology, where this article first appeared.