Image credit: Rose Makin.
This original article has been written and kept up-to-date by our experienced Centrelink fraud lawyer.
Centrelink fraud offences are widespread in Australia and attracts heavy criminal penalties. Centrelink payments offences are typically offences of receiving more money from Centrelink than what you’re actually entitled to, resulting in a Centrelink debt. Not knowing that you were receiving more money than you were entitled to is a defence to a Centrelink fraud prosecution, however this can result in you still owing Centrelink money. Centrelink will normally investigate you if they suspect you’re claiming more social security benefits than your entitled to, because of routine data matching checks or from a tip-off.
Centrelink Debt & Not Declaring Income to Centrelink
Failing to accurately declare your income or employment correctly results in Centrelink overpayments due to being overpaid by Centrelink. These types of overpayment Centrelink offences include, not declaring your employment or under-declaring your income and failing to update Centrelink.
If you are overpaid by Centrelink, then you will have a Centrelink debt that must be repaid. Repaying a Centrelink debt before you are sentenced in court can significantly improve your chances at avoiding jail, and sometimes even at avoiding a criminal record, depending on the features of your case.
Other Centrelink fraud offences include:
- Not declaring your partner’s income
- Receiving carer payments or benefits during periods you were no longer a carer,
- Receiving disability support payments during periods you were no longer suffering the particular kind of disability,
- Receiving payments for caring for children while you were not caring for those children,
- Receiving payments or benefits from Centrelink under different names,
- Not declaring that you are now residing with a partner.
- Child support fraud i.e. claiming a child is in your name when it is untrue, making false or misleading statements.
What if I don’t update Centrelink on a change of my income or circumstances? Before 4 August 2011, a person who omits to update Centrelink of an increase in income or circumstances could not be prosecuted. However, after 4 August 2011, a person who fails to update Centrelink can be prosecuted and face the same heavy penalties under s 135.2 Criminal Code. This is because, s66A Social Security (Administration) Act clarifies that a failure to update is an omission and is considered ‘conduct’. S66A also creates a legal obligation to disclose such updates if you’ve been served a notice to disclose such updates. It also allows you a grace period of within 14 days to update Centrelink from the day your income is first increased or change of circumstances occurs.
What Happens If You Have Been Overpaid by Centrelink?
If you’ve been overpaid by Centrelink, you will be required to pay back the money overpaid. This can be paid back in full, by requesting an extension of time, by way of a payment plan in instalments over time, or if you continue to receive Centrelink benefits, Centrelink can deduct an amount from those payments. Failure to pay the money back, can result in Centrelink obtaining a garnishee order to direct your employer, bank or even the ATO to pay money otherwise owed to you. Failure to pay it back can also result in you being prohibited from going overseas, and/or the debt referred to a debt collection agency and interest charged.
How Far Back Can Centrelink Investigate?
Centrelink can now investigate as far back as they want. They can also take legal proceedings against you when they believe there is merit, and they can do this without a statute of limitation. Legal proceedings are usually in the form of commonwealth criminal proceedings by way of a charge. If the Commonwealth charge has a maximum penalty of imprisonment of 6 months or less, or no imprisonment penalty, then there is a 1-year statute of limitations that applies. This means they cannot prosecute you after one year has passed if you fall in this category. Otherwise, there is no limit.
How Long Does a Centrelink Investigation Take?
A Centrelink investigation can take between weeks to months, depending on the complexity and period of suspected offending. Centrelink will only investigate if suspicion arises. A suspicion may come about from an anonymous dob in, or it may arise as a result of a data match discrepancy between other organisations, such as your bank and the Australian Taxation Office and/or your social media. Centrelink can also direct your employer to disclose certain financial information concerning you.
How Does Centrelink Investigate?
Centrelink have various methods of investigating, including, data match with other institutions such as the Australian Taxation Office, your employer, and your bank to find out your financial position. Centrelink’s power extends to reaching out to all these organisations when investigating suspected Centrelink fraud. Centrelink may also view your social media such as Facebook posts. Following their investigation, Centrelink will decide on whether or not to take further action. This may mean that they will request for you to attend their office or via phone call for a voluntary interview.
It is also not uncommon for a Centrelink representative to attend your home to ask questions. Get legal advice before taking your next steps if you are approached for an interview.
How do I know if Centrelink is Investigating me?
You will usually not be aware when Centrelink initially commence an investigation on your financial position, however, you can receive indications that point to the conclusion that you are being investigated if you have been contacted by Centrelink requesting a voluntary interview. Or if Centrelink attend your home to ask questions. Centrelink will never disclose who gave a tip-off to initiate an investigation if someone did. If ever requested for an interview, generally you can refuse. If a Centrelink officer attends your home, you can refuse entry and you can politely ask them to leave.
Will I go to Jail for Centrelink Debt?
You will not necessarily go to jail over a Centrelink debt. However, Centrelink may recover the debt in a number of ways, including a garnishee order directing the ATO, your bank or your employer to pay the money they would normally pay you to pay Centrelink. Another way Centrelink may recover the debt is by outsourcing a debt collection agency to recover it by legal means, by taking you to court. If you committed a Centrelink fraud, then you can go to jail if the money you have received is a significant amount and over a long period of time. There are alternative options to jail, including an Intensive Correction Order that is available for the court to impose when sentencing.
Do You Have to Pay Centrelink Back?
Any overpayments received from Centrelink must generally be paid back either in full or by instalments. Failure to pay back Centrelink can result in being prohibited from leaving Australia, legal proceedings by way of a garnishee order directing your employer, bank or ATO to pay your money to Centrelink directly.
How do I get Centrelink Debt Waived?
Normally Centrelink debts are not waived. You may be able to ask for special consideration by applying for a waiver. Centrelink may consider this by assessing the circumstances of the debt and amount of the debt. For example, Centrelink may decide to waive your debt if the debt arose due to an administrative error or if there are ‘special circumstances’. You may do this online by going to the service centre Centrelink website and follow the prompts.
How do I Report Someone Lying to Centrelink?
You can report someone lying to Centrelink by completing an online form via the online service centre Centrelink website. It is important to be as specific as possible when answering those questions in order for Centrelink to be able to properly investigate effectively. Centrelink will not keep you updated on the progress of their investigation if they decide to do so.
Can You Report Someone to Centrelink Anonymously?
You can certainly report someone to Centrelink anonymously. The most common and easiest way to do this is online, through their website. There is a specific form you will be required to complete, which requests specific details. As a result, Centrelink will never disclose the identity of the person who reports to them. This is always kept confidential.
Is Lying to Centrelink a Crime?
Lying to Centrelink can amount to a criminal charge. There is an obligation to tell the truth and be honest to Centrelink when claiming benefits. If as a result of being untruthful intentionally or recklessly, resulting in you receiving financial benefits you are otherwise not entitled to, then you can be prosecuted in a criminal court.
Will Centrelink Send Me to Jail?
Centrelink itself does not have the power to send you to jail. It is a court that has the power to do this, and only in appropriate situations of a case. If Centrelink refer your case, after its investigation, to the prosecuting authority (CDPP), then the CDPP will formally charge and prosecute, taking you to court. At Court, if you plead guilty, or are found guilty after a hearing, then the Judge or Magistrate will determine an appropriate penalty to impose. The penalty will depend on the amount of money, sophistication, planning, period of offending and whether any money has been repaid. Based on all this, the court can decide not to send you to jail.
What Happens If I Get Caught Cheating Centrelink?
If you are found to be cheating Centrelink by receiving more money than entitled, then Centrelink will consider referring you to the relevant authorities for prosecution. The prosecution authority is the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecution (CDPP) who prosecute on behalf of Australia. If they get involved, they will arrest and charge you, requiring you to appear in court and face the allegations. Depending on the charge, most Centrelink charges carry heavy penalties of imprisonment and a conviction. There are other options to avoid jail, and it is recommended to get legal advice. Centrelink may also decide not to refer your case for prosecution, especially if the money is repaid.
Does Centrelink Check Your Bank Accounts?
Centrelink can check your bank accounts. It can do this as part of the process of their investigation powers in data-checking with other organisations, requiring those organisations, including banks, to disclose your financial details for them to assess whether or not you have been receiving more money than you’re entitled to.
How Many Years Can Centrelink Go Back?
Centrelink can go back as many years as is considered relevant by them to conduct their investigation as to whether or not you have been illegally receiving more money from them than you should or are entitled to.
Does Centrelink Cross Check with ATO?
Centrelink conducts a data-match process as part of their investigation if they suspect you have committed a Centrelink fraud. This includes cross-checking with the Australian Taxation Office. Centrelink can do this with various organisations including your employer.
What Happens if You Get Caught Defrauding Centrelink?
Getting caught committing a Centrelink fraud can result in Centrelink either issuing a warning and taking no action provided the money is returned, or they may refer it to the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions (CDPP) who will investigate and charge you. This will result in a Court Attendance Notice being issued to you requiring you to attend court with an outline of the exact charge(s). Sometimes before this happens, you may be invited to give an interview to Centrelink, or by the Australian Federal Police. It’s important to get prompt and reliable legal advice before making your next move. The potential consequences can result in a criminal conviction and imprisonment.
Do Centrelink Tell You If They are Investigating You?
Centrelink do not normally tell you if they are investigating you. The initial phases of their investigation will be discreetly conducted by cross checking your financial information from your bank, ATO and even employer. Nor will they disclose what caused them to initially investigate you. You will likely find out that Centrelink is investigating you at some later stage of the investigation.
How Do You Report Someone to Centrelink?
You can remain anonymous when reporting someone to Centrelink. This can be done online, over the phone or by even attending a Centrelink office. Centrelink take this very seriously and it will likely result in an internal investigation.
Can Centrelink See Your Bank Account?
Centrelink are able to cross-check your bank account. This is part of their data-match investigation processes which they have access to at their disposal. They are then able to use this information in assessing whether or not you have committed a Centrelink fraud.