How to deal with being investigated for benefit fraud
When you apply for a welfare benefit from Work and Income New Zealand (WINZ) you have a duty to give a true and complete picture of your current circumstances (see How to apply for a welfare benefit). You must also notify WINZ of any relevant change in your circumstances once you are receiving a benefit (see below). If you have not been honest about your situation and, as a result, you receive income support that you are not entitled to, you will have committed a benefit crime.
Beneficiaries must notify WINZ of changes in their circumstances
You have a duty to advise WINZ of any change in your circumstances that affects your entitlement to a benefit or the amount of the benefit. You can be criminally liable if you fail to do this. For example, you should notify WINZ if:
- you have started working
- you are receiving income from boarders
- you are now studying
- there is a change in the number of dependent children in your care
- you, or your spouse or dependent child, are about to leave New Zealand
How are WINZ investigations initiated?
WINZ investigations into beneficiaries for benefit fraud are often started when members of the public provide WINZ with information. An investigation may also be initiated if any anomalies are found when WINZ check the information that you have supplied them with your bank or employer.
WINZ also match beneficiaries' records with other government agencies, such as the Inland Revenue Department, the New Zealand Custom Service and the Ministry of Education. From this information matching, WINZ may discover, for example, if you have been working during the relevant period or if you have gone overseas.
If WINZ discover that you have in fact already informed them of a change in circumstances revealed by information-matching, WINZ must destroy the information obtained from the other agency. They must also destroy the information if for any other reason they decide not to take action against you.
How will WINZ investigate?
An investigation will be carried out by a WINZ Benefit Crime team. They will usually ask you for an interview and will want to take a statement from you.
You should obtain legal advice before going to an interview and making any statement to WINZ, and in particular before you admit anything to them. A statement to WINZ has the same effect as a statement to the Police, and can be used later in Court against you as evidence.
What action can WINZ take against me?
At the least, WINZ will require you to pay back any amount that you were not entitled to. You may also be fined a substantial amount and may even be sentenced to a period of imprisonment.
Do I have a right of access to information that WINZ holds about me?
Under the PRIVACY ACT 1993 you are entitled to have access to files that WINZ hold on you (see How to obtain personal information held by government departments). If you want your lawyer to look at your file, you will need to give him or her written authorisation from you to do so.
- If you are being investigated by WINZ for benefit fraud, you should consult a lawyer immediately. Your lawyer will also be able to protect your rights if you are concerned about the way in which the WINZ investigation is being conducted.