Housing Benefit fraud and errors costs every family £70

Lord Freud

The Department of Work and Pensions has revealed the shocking level of housing benefit fraud in the UK: last year £1.27 billion was lost in housing benefit fraud and errors. This is an increase of 30% in two years - at a time when the government has been promising to tackle fraud as a matter of urgency.

So what has gone so wrong?
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Overpayments

The figures, reported by the Daily Mail, show that one pound in every 20 paid out in housing benefit is now either a mistake, or fraud. This compares to benefits overall where 2.1% is overspent because of fraud and error - and makes housing benefit the area where fraud and overpayment is most likely to happen.

There are a number of reasons for overpayments. Some £790 million is lost because of honest mistakes made by people trying to claim, £130 million lost because of mistakes by people in government, and £350 million because of fraud.

It reveals two clear problems: the system is patently too complicated for people to get right, and it is open to abuse.

Getting tough

The government has been making an effort to 'get tough'. It has increased the level of penalties, so you can now be fined up to £2,000 without going to court, or £50 if you are negligent when completing a form. Fraudsters can also lose their benefits for three years.

However, it's pointless making a show of getting tough, if the system is still too complex for honest people to understand, and too disparate to police.

It's worth highlighting that housing benefit mistakes also include a huge number of underpayments. According to the TUC, one in ten housing benefit claimants are underpaid.

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Housing Benefit fraud and errors costs every family £70

More than 12 million pieces of personal information were illegally traded online by identity fraudsters in the first quarter of 2012 alone, according to data from Experian CreditExpert - outstripping the entire of 2010.

The vast majority (90%) of this illegally traded information is password and log in combinations - a result of the spiralling number of online accounts many of us now have. Research shows the average Brit uses around five different passwords online, but with an average of 26 different accounts each – this is nowhere near enough protection.

"Using a different password for each account will minimise risks, but if password information is stolen from a website, all accounts using the same details will be compromised, and this information can spread among fraudsters rapidly," warns Peter Turner, managing director at Experian Consumer Services in the UK and Ireland.

Step up your account protection with this guide to choosing a secure password.

Credit and store cards continue to prove particularly attractive to fraudsters and 2012 year has seen 73% surge in the takeover of plastic card accounts by criminals with nearly one quarter of all identity frauds, and 36% of all account takeovers, taking place on these cards.

Richard Hurley, communications manager at CIFAS explains the threat: "Whether it is through using an innocent party's details to open a new account in the victim's name, or hijacking the victim's details and taking over existing accounts, the modern fraudster will continue to pay specific attention to credit and store card accounts as an easy way of obtaining funds and goods, while leaving someone else to pick up the bill."

Be vigilant with your cards and follow our tips to protect your plastic through safe online shopping.

As if the mis-selling of payment protection insurance (PPI) wasn't scandal enough, 2012 has seen fraudsters preying on PPI victims. Consumers have received phone calls from someone who knows their name, announcing that they have won their PPI claim. The caller may also know the lender's name and an estimate of the loan amount.

However, the caller will then request a payment from the consumer in order to receive their compensation. This should signal warning bells, but many innocent victims have fallen for the scam and parted with money only for the bogus firm to disappear with their cash, and of course the compensation that never existed.

Consumers should be wary of all cold calls, particularly those that request cash upfront. There is no need to pay to make a claim for mis-sold PPI – you can claim direct to your bank for free and receive free advice from debt charities like Citizens Advice and the Consumer Credit Counselling Service.

If you do choose to take on the assistance of a claims management firm – never agree to an upfront payment. Reputable firms will only request payment for their services once you have received your compensation from your lender either by cheque or by payment into your bank account.

Phishing – when an unsolicited email arrives in your inbox requesting details to your personal accounts – continues to rise, leading to a surge in online banking fraud. Online banking fraud losses totaled £21.6 million during January to June 2012, according to CIFAS - a 28% increase on the 2011 half-year figure.

The emails trick customers into visiting fake banking websites – often made to look startlingly similar to the real thing - and disclosing their online banking login details. Online banking customers are also being tricked into divulging their bank login details and passwords over the phone to someone they believe is from their bank but is actually a fraudster.

The key point to remember is that banks will never contact you by phone or email and ask you to disclose your details, so always beware correspondence of this nature. Consumers should also be cautious of emails purporting to be from government bodies such as HMRC, or other financial accounts, such as Paypal.

There were over 50 different scams known to the 2012 Olympic Committee, with fraudsters cashing in on the good-natured spirit of the Games and nationwide scramble for tickets. The vast majority of scams took the form of phishing emails – purporting bogus job offers; prize draws; lottery wins and complimentary tickets – all with the sole purpose of duping consumers into sharing personal details or parting with cash in order to claim prizes.

Official tickets for the London 2012 Games were only available for purchase through the London 2012 website and appointed ticketing partners, so any other sources were offering fake or non-existent tickets. As for competition prizes and lottery wins – consumers should remember that it is impossible to win a competition or draw that you did not knowingly enter and that if a prize seems too be good to be true, it probably is.

Insurance is an incredibly complex area of personal finance and different forms of cover are riddled with different hitches that make it crucial to read the small print. Failure to do so could lead you to pay for a product you would be never be able to claim upon, or unknowingly do something that invalidates your claim.

Always buy the right level of cover for your needs and pay close attention to any exclusions in the policy wording. For example, many travel insurance policies for winter sports won't pay out for treatment of injuries incurred while under the influence of alcohol.

Surely the lowest of the low, charity donation fraud – when fake charities play on our sympathy by requesting donations to a worthy cause – is on the rise. Donation requests come in the form of unsolicited emails; phone calls; house visits or being approached in a public place. In many cases, donation requests are linked to a high-profile event, such as Hurricane Sandy that wreaked havoc across America last month.

Either the charity that the fraudster has asked you to donate to doesn't exist, or they are misusing the name of a genuine, often well-known, charity and pocketing your money.

Don't let fraud risks put you off donating – just make the necessary checks to ensure your money is going to the intended cause. Genuine charities are registered with the Charity Commission and print their registration details on all documentation, collection bags and envelopes, so check these details exist and if in doubt, contact the Charity Commission to confirm that they are authentic. Call the helpline on 0845 300 0218 or check the online charity register by visiting charity-commission.gov.uk.

Cases of cash machine fraud, where a device is used to trap money inside the ATM machine, have increased more than 15-fold in London in the past three months. Reported incidents have risen from 150 across the UK in May, to 2,500 in London alone in August, according to figures from Link and London's Dedicated Cheque and Plastic Crime Unit (DCPCU).

Criminals insert a device called a cash claw behind the guard on the cash drawer of an ATM. The device is undetectable to the public, who use the machine as normal until their cash fails to eject.

"The machine goes out of service and then the criminal comes along, forces open the drawer using a pair of pliers or a screwdriver, forces the device out of the cash machine, bringing the customer's money with it," explains Detective Chief Inspector Dave Carter, head of the DCPCU.

Customers are advised to immediately report any banknotes undelivered from cash machines.

Rogue property developers selling land that they claim has great investment value, when there is little or no chance of it ever being developed, are on the rise again this year. Investigations have lead to a number of convictions in 2012, yet consumers are warned to be remain wary of this big money scam.

Land banking involves plots of land offered for sale, often online, with the promise of sizable returns when planning permission is approved for housing or other development. Yet often the land is located in areas protected from development by planning law.

The companies involved soon disappear with investors' money and as the firms are not protected by the Financial Services Authority, their funds are not covered by the Financial Services Compensation Scheme.

In October, PhonepayPlus (the UK's premium rate telephone regulator) fined two firms a total of £450,000 for running a series of voucher scams on Facebook.

The scams, which claimed to offer free vouchers and supermarket gift cards for Tesco and Asda, resulted in members of the public signing-up for expensive premium-rate phone services.

The scams relied on Facebook users innocently sharing or liking the voucher promotions on their status, which included the promise of a voucher worth up to £250 for major retailers. After clicking on the promotion consumers were duped into participating in premium rate competitions, which involved questions sent to their phone at a cost of £5 each.

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The solution?

The government is hoping that the solution will come with the introduction of the Universal Credit. At that point housing benefit will come under the control of central government rather than councils - which will make fraud easier to spot. At the same time, it says that reducing six benefits to one payment should simplify the system and cut down on mistakes.

Minister for Welfare Reform Lord Freud (pictured) said in a statement: "Universal Credit will revolutionise the welfare state and ensure that the unacceptable levels of fraud in the benefit system are reduced considerably. The Universal Credit system will be much easier for individuals to understand, less vulnerable to human error and more difficult for people to play the system."

But what do you think? Is this the solution? Let us know in the comments.

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Seven retirement nightmares
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Housing Benefit fraud and errors costs every family £70
Figures from charity Age UK show that 29% of those over 60 feel uncertain or negative about their current financial situation - with millions facing poverty and hardship. Even though saving for retirement is not much fun, the message is therefore that having to rely on dwindling state benefits in retirement is even less so. To avoid ending up in this situation, adviser Hargreaves Lansdown recommends saving a proportion of your salary equal to half your age at the time of starting a pension. In other words, if you are 30 when you start a pension, you should put in 15% throughout your working life. If you start at 24, saving 12% of your salary a year should produce a similar return.
Many older couples rely on the pension income of one person - often the man. Should that person die first, the other person can therefore be left in a difficult position financially.
One way to prevent financial hardship for the surviving person is to take out a joint life annuity that will continue to pay out up to 67% of the original payments to the surviving partner should one of them die.

The disadvantage of this approach, however, is that the rate you receive will be lower. Again, the Pensions Advisory Service on 0845 601 2923 is a useful first port of call if you are unsure what to do.

Around 427,000 households in the over-70 age groups are either three months behind with a debt repayment or subject to some form of debt action such as insolvency, according to the Consumer Credit Counselling Service (CCCS).

Its figures also show that those aged 60 or older who came to the CCCS for help last year owed an average of £22,330. Whether you are retired or not, the best way to tackle debt problems is head on.

Free counselling services from the likes of CCCS and Citizens Advice can help with budgeting and dealing with creditors.

Importantly, they can also conduct a welfare benefits check to make sure you are receiving the pension credit, housing and council tax benefits, attendance and disability living allowances you are entitled to.

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The average UK pensioner household faces a £111,400 tax bill in retirement as increasing longevity means pensioners are living on average up to 19 years past the age of 65, according to figures from MetLife. And every year in retirement adds an extra £5,864 in direct and indirect taxes based on current tax rates to the costs for the average pensioner household. You can be forced to go bankrupt if you fail to pay your taxes, so it is vital to factor these costs into your retirement planning.It is also important to check that you are receiving all the benefits and tax breaks you are entitled to if you want to make the most of your retirement cash.

The cost of a room in a care home in many parts of the country is now over £30,000 a year, according to figures from Prestige Nursing and Care. So even if the prime minister announces a cap on care costs - last year the economist Andrew Dilnot called for a new system of funding which would mean that no one would pay more than £35,000 for lifetime care - families will still face huge accommodation costs. Ways to cut this cost include opting for home care rather than a care home. Jonathan Bruce, managing director of Prestige Nursing and Care, said: "For older people who may need care in the shorter term, home care is an option which allows people to maintain their independence for longer while living in their own home and should be included in the cap." However, the only other answer is to save more while you can.
Older Britons are often targeted by unscrupulous criminals - especially if they have a bit of money put away. For example, many over 50s were victims of the so-called courier scam that tricked into keying their pin numbers into their phones and handing their cards to "couriers" who visited their homes. It parted consumers from £1.5 million in under two years. Detective Chief Inspector Paul Barnard, head of the bank sponsored dedicated cheque and plastic crime unit (DCPCU), said: "Many of us feel confident that we can spot fraudsters, but this type of crime can be sophisticated and could happen to anyone." The same is true of boiler room scams that target wealthier Britons with money to invest, offering "once-in-a-lifetime" opportunities to snap up shares at bargain prices. Tactics to watch out for include cold calling, putting you under pressure to pay up or lose the opportunity for good, and claiming to have insider information that they are prepared to share with you.
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