Sophisticated systems in place to debunk fraud attempts
THE Department of Human Services has expressed confidence in its ability to detect and avoid fraud in the Australian welfare system.
The comments come following the suspended sentence given to a 35-year-old ex-Centrelink employee who defrauded the agency of more than $10,000.
Danielle Walker, of Wooli, had pleaded guilty to five counts of dishonestly obtaining financial advantage from a government agency by deception between November 2013 and February 2014.
She was working at the Yamba Service Centre at the time.
According to a Department of Human Services spokesperson "the department uses a range of methods to detect fraud, including: identity checking, data-matching information with other agencies, tip-offs from the community to the Australian Government Fraud Tip-off line, data mining and data analysis, and optical surveillance.
"The department has one of the most sophisticated electronic data-matching systems in Australia, with more than 20 separate data sharing arrangements with government agencies and private entities, including the Australian Taxation Office, financial institutions, and educational organisations to name a few."
Ex-Centrelink employee defrauds agency of thousands to pay drug debts
In sentencing Walker for offences that could have resulted in a maximum jail term of 10 years, magistrate Robyn Denes noted she had to walk a fine line of providing general deterrence for a serious crime and dealing sensitively with an individual case.
Defence solicitor Michelle Hermann also argued the short period of offending and the relatively small amounts involved put the offending at the low end of the scale.
She said her client had a good record, with just one offence for a drug-related matter connected to this period in her life.
She also said her client had already paid a significant penalty, losing her marriage, her house and her career because of her offending.
The prosecution said Walker had only stopped offending because she had been caught and the offences were of a nature that undermined public trust in government bodies like Centrelink.
The magistrate said this case posed some sentencing problems.
"Miss Walker's case is a very good example of the saying you can't judge a book by its cover," Ms Denes said.
"If you saw her in the street and knew nothing of her struggles you would not think anything bad of her."
She said Walker's life had "fallen apart" during a period in her life when memories of a bad childhood, involving drug abuse, had taken hold.
"You were trying to cover your drug taking from your family, while trying to pay off drug dealers unless something happened to your family," the magistrate said.
But Ms Denes said the nature of the offences - Walker used her position as a Centrelink employee to create false accounts in other people's names and divert the funds into a bank account in her husband's name - was serious.
"It's a serious level of fraud because she used her position of trust to access funds she was not lawfully entitled to," Ms Denes said.
"Those matters always attract a heavy penalty."
Ms Denes said people trusted people in these positions, who had access to computer records and other facilities, to do the right thing.
"That's how it works," she said. "When it doesn't there is a need for a really serious message of general deterrence for the community."
She said Walker was remorseful and pleaded guilty at the first opportunity, entitling her to the full 25% sentence discount.
She sentenced Walker to two months' jail for each charge, but wholly suspended the sentence.
She also placed her on a $500 good behaviour bond for 18 months.
Walker has been ordered to repay $10,610.33.
Department of Human Services takes internal fraud seriously
The Department of Human Services spokesperson said the department takes internal fraud control seriously and its systems respond to fraudulent activity, including a proactive internal fraud detection program.
"Our fraud awareness strategy promotes key messages about how we view fraud, how to report suspected fraud, and awareness of current and emerging risks.
"Where there is evidence of suspected fraud by employees, the department will take action to investigate.
"Unfortunately, a very small number of individuals have attempted to use their position in the department to fraudulently take payments they are not entitled to. This behaviour is not acceptable and represents a gross breach of the trust placed in them by the public.
"Consequently, in cases where such behaviour is proven the consequences for the staff member are significant."