Housing fraud is in the news, but it’s not news to me: trying to stop fraudsters is my day job as the senior housing investigation officer at the London borough of Camden. In 1991, we were the first borough to carry out a 100% tenancy audit of our housing stock. We then set up a hotline for the public to report fraud, and we have had a team of specialist officers dealing with tenancy fraud here ever since.
Right now, I’m managing a team of five experienced and professionally qualified housing investigation officers. We’re a very busy team investigating more than 1,000 referrals each year. Those referrals come from a wide variety of sources; not all will result in proven fraud, but we investigate them all as quickly as possible to establish if there is any substance to the allegation – and if we need to, we take further action.
Our results have improved year-on-year, and since April 2011 we have recovered 103 properties from fraudsters. Some return the keys when given the evidence against them to avoid a court hearing and a public judgment, but others put up a defence so the judge will decide on the evidence submitted at court.
Housing fraud is very difficult to prove so it takes determination and tenacity to gather enough evidence to make a watertight case. We use various tools to help us: credit checking with Experian and Equifax; the electoral register; registration of births, deaths and marriages; the National Fraud Initiative; the internet and our own in-house data sets. We now have established contacts in different countries all over the world.
My work doesn’t just involve straight subletting of properties. It also includes identifying false housing applications or successions, mutual exchanges, the right-to-buy, non-occupation of a social let and gaining access for safety checks or decent homes work. That covers anything that needs to be checked before a tenancy is started or changed.
Our accommodation is scarce and very valuable, so it is vital that we allocate it to people who really need it and that it continues to be occupied by them. Some people will try to cheat the system in an attempt to earn thousands of pounds a year renting out their homes – something to watch in this year, when there will be lots of visitors to Camden and the rest of London, due to the Olympics.
When it comes to identifying sublet homes, we carry out routine tenancy checks to our properties to establish if the genuine tenant is still resident. It’s good to be out and about; most residents are happy to see us checking who is living where.
We also prosecute people who make fraudulent housing applications. We believe our housing should be allocated to people in real housing need, not those who pretend to be. We have had six successful prosecutions and – although the punishment has been lenient – it is a deterrent: it’s not good to have a criminal record for fraud on your CV.
After Christmas, housing minister Grant Shapps released a consultation on the criminalisation of social housing fraud. I welcome this move as it would be more of a deterrent to stop tenants committing fraud and would help us to take action against those who do. It sends a very clear message to anyone committing fraud that they run a high risk of being punished.
All in all, it’s a great job to do. My management responsibilities mean I do miss being out and about myself, but it is hugely rewarding to manage such an enthusiastic and passionate team of people who really make a difference. Fraudsters in Camden need to keep looking over their shoulders.
Source : guardian