Southend Council continues to battle fraud linked to Covid-19

Southend Council is continuing to battle fraudsters attempting to take advantage of Covid-19 support schemes.

There has been a fall in the overall number of incidents linked to financial crime in the borough but the majority of those that are occurring appear to have links to coronavirus support grants and benefits.

In one case, the team thwarted several attempts by a fraudster to acquire the account numbers for the business rate accounts which helped distribute vital Government businesses grants at the height of the lockdown.

The details, outlined in a new report from Southend’s Counter Fraud Team, come after the council’s senior investigating officer Sean Dutton told an Audit Committee in April that there had been a 200 per cent rise in cases.

He attributed this to people look to take advantage of the chaotic situation caused by the pandemic and said he was expecting the team “to have a lot of work in the coming months”.

Since then, the report explains, there has been a “marked reduction” in the overall number of fraud referrals between April and July which “may, in some part, be a result of the current crisis”.

The cases have dropped by 50 per cent – from 102 new cases to just 54 – but the majority of those that are happening are linked to business grants and council tax.

Councillor Ian Gilbert, leader of Southend Council, said: “The Southend counter-fraud team has been operating for three reporting quarters since its formation in October 2019.

“Once the Government announced the support packages available to local businesses, we saw an increase in the number of fraud referrals from our Revenues and Benefits team, who administer the relief grants.

“There has been a marked decrease in fraud referrals, and it is important to stress that this covers all fraud cases, not just those related to relief grants.

“So whilst we have seen a consistent high amount of fraud referrals through the Revenues and Benefits team, the decrease in other fraud cases, including referrals received from the public, equates to a decrease in referrals from the last quarterly report.”

A total of 89 cases are under investigation with almost 50 per cent being linked to council tax and business rates, followed by housing-related fraud such as sub-letting accommodation, and council employee fraud.

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Mick Ferris

Editor Email: [email protected]