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Centrelink fraud offences are among the most frequently prosecuted Commonwealth criminal offences. Sometimes the behaviour complained of is deliberate, but motivated by genuine financial hardship rather than greed. Sometimes it is quite accidental. Even individuals who have been inadvertently overpaid and are attempting to pay the money back may end up facing fraud charges. If you suspect that you are under criminal investigation for Centrelink fraud, you should seek immediate legal advice because there may be defences that can help you avoid criminal penalties including fines and imprisonment.

Centrelink Fraud Offences

Among the offences, which may be prosecuted under The Social Security (Administration) Act 1999, are:

  • Obtaining a Newstart allowance and failing to declare part-time earnings;
  • Obtaining a single parent allowance and failing to declare a live-in defacto relationship;
  • Obtaining an invalid pension and failing to disclose full time employment;
  • Not declaring income from employment, investments or other sources;
  • Exaggerating a medical condition;
  • Submitting false or forged documents;
  • Obtaining payment for children not in your care;
  • Collecting rent assistance when rent is not being paid;
  • Using more than one name to access benefits; and
  • Over-claiming benefits without any present entitlement.

Centrelink Fraud offences are what are known as “full knowledge offences”. To establish that a crime has occurred, the prosecution must establish that the conduct was intentional and that the defendant knew or believed that he or she was not entitled to receive that money from Centrelink.

Defences and Mitigating Factors

Lack of knowledge or intention is the principal avenue of defence, but other circumstances may mitigate the penalties imposed. These include:

  • Personal financial hardship;
  • The amount of money obtained;
  • The length of the fraud;
  • False statements or any positive attempts to deceive (or the absence thereof); and
  • Any money paid back to Centrelink.

The Penalties May be Quite Harsh

At worst, if the prosecution is successful in establishing Centrelink fraud, the penalties may include imprisonment of from 12 months to 10 years and a fine of up to $10,200 for a minor offence or $102,000 for a major offence. A conviction may also have a substantial effect on future employability and travel opportunities.

Whether the fraud was intentional or accidental and thus not resulting in prosecution, the recipient will still have to repay any overpaid entitlements.

Centrelink Investigation

New sophisticated data matching techniques have led to the detection of many offenders, and Centrelink is vigorous in efforts to combat what is understood as a “crime against the public purse”. Suspected offenders may be referred for prosecution even though only small amounts of money are involved.

If Centrelink believes that fraud had occurred, they will conduct an investigation. As a first step, they will ordinarily ask someone to attend a tape-recorded interview. They may also turn up at the individual’s home to ask questions.

It is important that you seek legal advice before attending an interview or answering any of Centrelink’s questions. Be mindful that any information given in an interview can be used as evidence in court.

Before attending an interview with Centrelink, or admitting an investigator to your home for questioning, you should request written documentation of all the payments that have been made to you and how Centrelink has figured out the amount that you have been overpaid.

At the conclusion of their investigation, Centrelink will refer the matter to the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions (CDPP) who will decide whether to press charges. If you are charged with Centrelink fraud, it is very important that you seek legal advice, especially if you have not previously done so.

There are four charges, with varying maximum penalties, that the CDPP commonly presses against alleged Centrelink fraud offenders:

  • Obtaining financial advantage (s135.2(1) of Criminal Code);
  • General dishonesty causing a loss (s135.1(5) of Criminal Code);
  • Obtaining a financial advantage by deception (s134.2(1) of Criminal Code); and
  • Obtaining property by deception (s134.1(1) of Criminal Code).

At Owen Hodge Lawyers, we have substantial experience in working with clients who are under investigation or being criminally prosecuted for Centrelink fraud. We would be happy to work with you to achieve the best possible outcome in your circumstances. It is important, however, that you contact us as soon as possible, so that we can build your best case. Call us today at 1800 770 780.