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UK’s £54M welfare fraud case illustrates need for biometric identity verification

UK’s £54M welfare fraud case illustrates need for biometric identity verification

A team of fraudsters has been convicted for what was described as “the largest case of benefit fraud in England and Wales.” The technically unsophisticated, mass-scale fraud was carried out with impersonation and forged documents against government systems that did not apply robust document checks or biometrics with presentation attack detection.

Using a combination of legitimate and fake identity documents, the five-member gang had stolen £53.9 million (US$67.1 million) from Universal Credit, the main welfare benefit in the UK. The team pleaded guilty to fraud and money laundering offenses after their arrest in May 2021 and is currently awaiting sentencing at London’s Wood Green Crown Court slated for May 28.

Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) prosecutor Ben Reid noted that the case was the “largest benefit fraud prosecution ever brought to the courts in England and Wales.”

The scammers are Bulgarian citizens, three women and two men. Over four and a half years, the group made thousands of false claims for Universal Credit using either real people or stolen identities. The claims were made with forged documents such as fake tenancy agreements, payslips, letters from landlords, employers and more. The fraudsters would make multiple benefit applications until they were granted.

A comprehensive identity verification process would have applied both document authenticity checks and biometrics with liveness detection, which at least in theory could have protected the UK government’s benefits programs against the ID fraud.

The fraud operation worked through three “benefit factories” in London which claimed to assist people in obtaining insurance numbers and benefits to which they are entitled. The businesses, however, would claim benefits in the name of the applicants and then keep the money, laundering it through several accounts and withdrawing it in cash.

During the arrest, authorities found hundreds of forged and false documents as well as cash. One of the accomplices fled to Bulgaria but was later extradited back to the UK, according to the BBC.

“This was a complex and challenging case which required close and effective working between CPS prosecutors, the Department for Work and Pensions and our international partners in both Bulgaria and through the UK desk at Eurojust, to dismantle and successfully prosecute the organized crime group,” says Reid.

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