Couple convicted of fraud for living together after lengthy surveillance operation
A few weeks ago, I shared some tips on the importance of making sure your benefits claim is accurate. Specifically, we went over HMRC rules regarding what constitutes a single person and when they consider you to be a couple, as this is a fundamental aspect when it comes to benefit entitlements.
A recent incident on the Isle of Man serves as a cautionary tale and highlights the potential consequences of supplying false information. It also gives an intriguing glimpse of the lengths to which the authorities will go to catch you out if they suspect your claim is not above board.
Single or couple?
Michael Smith and Mia Kneale look like any other young couple. Just starting out in life, the pair from Douglas on the Isle of Man recently started a relationship and they have plans to move to France together to renovate a dilapidated property.
The problems began when the Isle of Man Examiner newspaper ran a local interest piece that discussed the couple, who were living in difficult conditions. Their rental property in Clarke Street, Douglas, was in a state of disrepair, and the newspaper sent reporters and photographers to interview them for the piece.
If they hoped that the resulting publicity would result in some improvements to their living conditions, for example a new boiler or heating system, they were to be disappointed. In fact, it landed them in hot water of an entirely different kind.
Eagle-eyed Treasury investigators decided to take a closer look at the couple after reading the story. They discovered that both couples were claiming income support – Miss Kneale as a single person living alone at the Clarke Street property and Mr Smith living with his father in nearby Horseshoe Avenue.
However, the picture that appeared in the paper showed the couple at the Clarke Street address, and the editorial certainly suggested that they both lived there.
Local treasury officers decided to commence a covert surveillance operation in which they kept the Clarke Street address under close observation, and paid particular attention to the movements of Mr Smith. They told the court that a man matching Mr Smith’s description was seen to leave the property early each morning.
The investigators also found that the couple had a joint account with utility supplier Manx Gas relating to the property.
When confronted with the evidence, the couple admitted two counts of fraudulently claiming income support to the tune of more than £9,000. The court heard that Ms Kneale’s claim was initially genuine, but that she had failed to provide notification when Mr Smith moved in. Mr Smith’s claim was found to be fraudulent from the outset.
The pair were ordered to repay the money, and they narrowly avoided prison terms. Mr Smith was ultimately sentenced to 100 hours of community service, while Ms Kneale was handed a 12 week custodial sent, suspended for two years.
The actions of Smith and Kneale were clearly wrong, and some might say it is poetic justice that they were caught out in the way they were. However, we are all human, and what it really comes down to is a young couple living in difficult circumstances who made some bad decisions. And now they are paying the price.
Perhaps the biggest lesson here is the lengths that the authorities will go to in order to hunt down anyone suspected of submitting an inaccurate claim.
If you should find yourself under investigation in this way, for whatever reason, it is important that you have the right support. At Hylton-Potts, we are here to help, not judge, so let us take a look at what has happened, and we will work with you to find the best possible solution. We will also deal with agencies like the DWP on your behalf.
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