Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Experian and the Exchequer

This article was originally posted on Flash Says... on 17 August.

It emerged recently that the credit reference agency Experian is in talks to do a deal with the Government to try and unearth benefit cheats. It would earn a “bounty” for each person it exposes. To my mind, this is a pointless exercise and full of flaws.

Experian already have a contract with the government to check housing benefit claimants, and say they have saved £17m. Now, they are being more ambitious and claim they could save £1.5bn every year by checking up on those who receive other benefits.

Credit reference agencies keep a record of how much was spent on credit cards each month, and whether it was repaid on time. Presumably then, they intend to identify those on income-related benefits, and see whether their spending patterns exceed their benefit payments – then shop them to the Government.

There are so many reasons why this would not work. For a start, although the Daily Mail would have you believe otherwise, there are not many benefit fraudsters and so Experian would be looking for a needle in a haystack. The amount of work involved may be uneconomical, compared with the payment for identifying a cheat.

Credit card payments could genuinely exceed income, while still being paid off on time. For example, how many times have you slapped down your card at a group meal, then scooped up everyone else’s cash? Or filled your car up with petrol for a big trip, while collecting money from your mates for sharing the journey with them? Even grocery shopping can be organised in this way, perhaps shopping with your mum, putting it all on your own card, then sorting it out at home. I often add items to my weekly supermarket shop for an elderly neighbour, who then repays me in cash. These are common situations, but all that Experian will see is the amount that hits your credit card every month, no matter whether you received money back.

Even at work, this situation occurs. For example, I regularly buy website hosting and domains for customers at around £70 each. This is at cost price which the customer repays in full, and it's matched up in my accounts. But say I bought 5 of these packages for new customers each month – effectively just ordering the hosting packages with the customers’ own money, to make their lives easier – to Experian it would look like I was spending £350 more than the income I’ve declared receiving, because they only see one side of the story.

So what will Experian really be able to tell the benefits agencies, other than adding a level of confusion?

It is a serious concern that Experian would be paid a bounty for each case. This makes me worry that their staff will become overly suspicious – perhaps putting forward marginal cases – in the hope that they will strike gold. As Shami Chakrabarti, Director of Liberty, says, "What we must not do is create a benefit equivalent of parking attendants who are wanting to find people guilty ... because that is the way they get paid." The parking attendant analogy is a good one; in the past I have received tickets when I was doing nothing wrong. The attendant must have known I’d get off on appeal (which I did) but hoped that I would accept the fine and assume that I must have done something wrong, simply because an authority said so – thus lining his pocket in the process. Experian’s involvement is bound to promote an increase in fraud investigations, but it is critical that any approach to a benefit claimant should be gentle and presume innocence – at the moment very frightening letters are sent out to vulnerable people – in one case I discovered recently, the recipient was scared into giving up disability benefits to which they were genuinely entitled, just to be certain that they would never receive such a letter again.

At the moment, many people who legitimately claim benefits are worried about fraud allegations – you just have to read disability-related messageboards to see this concern. Newspapers such as the Daily Mail are quick to pounce on any genuine or high-profile cases that they can find, giving the false impression that there are many cheats and misleading people into being overly suspicious. I remember being worried when a neighbour, who I had spoken to a few times over my front gate, said “Flash, you’re not disabled are you?” – after all if he thought this, what might any investigator or passer by think, when seeing me walk unaided the few metres to my blue-badged car? Yet if they assumed I can walk far, or walk without pain, they would be wrong.

We are in danger of becoming a suspicious society, ready to shop our neighbours when the reality is that we know nothing about their situation. From what I can see, Experian’s involvement in detecting benefit fraud would reinforce that, without adding any value or detecting the genuine – but very few – cheats in the system.


  1. >At the moment, many people who legitimately claim benefits are worried about fraud allegations

    Too true. Every time I see a car parked in the street I feel physically sick, can't settle, and am convinced that it's DWP minions.

    True story - I once applied for Income Support to top up my Incapacity Benefit, as (at the time) I didn't qualify for housing benefit/LHA due to being 'high income'.

    A car followed my housemate halfway to work every day, came back and parked opposite my house and sat there from 3pm till 6pm every weekday for roughly 3 weeks.

    I got a call from my local DWP office, this is summarised but is the essence of what the woman said:

    "You're claiming fraudulently on several grounds. Not only do you own at least two properties, but you have bank and savings accounts, you've been seen going to work every day, and we believe you're in a sexual relationship with your 'housemate'. If you admit this now we won't take you to court. Admit it, go on, you two are sleeping together, we have ways of finding this out"

    So I said "I don't even have a basic account, let alone savings. My only income is my IB, it's my housemate you've been following to work, and by all means come and run DNA tests on my bloody mattress if you want to."

    So she carried on about my houses and savings, and frequent foreign holidays until I was completely and utterly stumped. Turns out that they'd decided that my mother, Mrs Xyzzie Smith and me, Ms Xyziski Smith, were the same person, despite the 25 year age gap and the fact that she lives in Eurasia.

    I think the govt. has worked with credit-checking agencies for some time, and are only now making it public, because a lot of the info they got could not have been gathered in any other way.

    I didn't get any IS, they told me if I claimed again they would stop my IB and take me to court. I hate to think how much their not-very-covert ops cost the taxpayer, as I didn't leave the house once or even go downstairs during their 'mission'.

    Contrast this with one of the actual fakers, who deals with the same local office, but because she's in her 50s and not her 20s is automatically telling the truth. She bought a wheelchair on ebay, bought a brand new house with her divorce settlement but put it in her son's name, and proceeded to apply for, and get, every sickness-related benefit available, plus a renovation of her entire house by social services, even though her GP has repeatedly told the DWP that his patient is a fraud, has no medical problems beyond being depressed after her divorce, and isn't on any POMs at all. She even attends the same dance club as him and his wife!

    I'm sick of the fear, and I'm sick of the "All people on benefits are scroungers" screeds perpetuated by the media, and bolstered by experiences most of us have with actual liars who seem to get away with murder, while genuine claimants are victimised. The scroungers don't give a toss, because if their money's taken away they can work.

  2. Since the middle ages successive governments have tried to recruit half the population as police, and the other half as spies. All sorts of social benefits are claimed to encourage recruitment. But basically it is just simply divide and rule.

    The police need to be ‘village idiots’, and the spies need to be ‘holier than thou’.
    The ethos is, prosecute and report everybody and then knowledgeable unimpeachable people ‘ie, themselves’ can investigate to sort out the facts and the truth.

    This only starts to unravel once ‘they themselves’ fall foul of their own minions, and realise the immense difficulty of trying to defend themselves against ‘the village idiot’ or ‘the holier than thou’ types. Or, the ‘village idiot’ and the ‘holier than thou’ realise they are not above suspicion and are being used to investigate each other.

    Parking attendants are classic ‘village idiot’ recruits, just as speeding cameras are mechanical ‘village idiots’. We all saw what happened to speeding cameras once the great and the good fell foul of the devices that were only supposed to capture the feckless masses.

    MP’s are already complaining they shouldn’t be treated like ‘benefit claimants’ when justifying their expenses. So there is, albeit unintended, an admission that being a benefit dependent is not a pleasant experience.

    This present government have forgotten the ‘social contract’, that people give up the right to take what they need and defend themselves against others, and will work to support the wider society in return for the right to be helped and protected when in need. Can’t they see that by declaring war on their own vulnerable citizens they will ultimately create injustice, bad feeling and an increasingly disparate and marginalised population.


  3. The main reason why it will not work is simple IB is paid to people who have worked it's not means tested you can own twenty million quid have ten houses and be the queen mum.

    I have money in the bank from my compensation claim, hence I cannot get housing benefits, but I can get IB and DLA.

    So if I buy a plasma TV and they find it, so what I'm entitled to spend the money the way i want, I cannot see many people on income support cheating, but if they did i doubt they be doing it through a bank account, not forgetting that two people living together are entitled to £16,000 in savings, so long as it does not go above that.

    It's pretty pathetic

  4. I have various "rare" illness's which affect me on a daily basis, somedays I can walk more than 50 yards (i dont use my badge on these days because I WANT to get fit and healthy again - though they have told me it won't improve much and nowhere near it was before I got ill - but one must try if only to keep ones sanity!) if I have a good day, you can bet I will be laid up for 2 or 3 days after because I have overdone it. But on the good days, you are constantly worried in case someone tells the agencies you are a fraud, so much that you can't enjoy the good days - this country just does not understand what it is like to be so ill and in so much pain day and night. I loved your blog it made me smile, thanks for ranting on our behalf lol x

  5. Every time I leave the house it is noted by my neighbours. I've even been approached by a woman who asked me to tell her 'what the doctor said' at a hospital visit. The same woman asked me who a certain man was who had taken me out in his car. I told her the truth, that it was my cousin who had just taken me to the dentist. A couple of weeks later my mother answered the door to 'an investigating officer' from the Benefits Agency.I hate living like this, in fear. I have several serious conditions with poor prognoses but my G. P says the stress of this surveillance is making me worse.