Is OSINT the key to fighting welfare system fraud? 

By Blackdot Solutions

Welfare system fraud

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    In the financial year ending 2023, £6.4 billion was lost to fraudulent welfare claims in the UK.1 This hurts everyone: income from taxes which should have been used to invest in better services and infrastructure instead goes to the minority of individuals engaged in criminal activity. At the same time, government departments and politicians are put under increased pressure from the public to ensure that taxpayers’ money is not being lost to criminals. 

    In the UK, legislation to give the Department for Work and Pensions new powers of investigation is currently in Parliament – but action is needed now. To increase investigators’ ability to fight fraud in the welfare system, public sector organisations must improve the way they use Open Source Intelligence (OSINT): publicly available or licensable data from sources such as search engines, corporate records databases and social media. Although OSINT is easily accessible, effective use depends on organisations’ ability to quickly identify relevant information and connections in a sea of data.  

    In this article, we’ll explore where OSINT can be useful in the complex, wide-ranging cases of welfare system fraud that public sector investigators are faced with, and how to maximise its effectiveness. 

    What types of investigations can OSINT support? 

    Welfare system fraud can be committed in numerous ways, but OSINT is useful across many of them, including: 

    • Under-declaring capital:  where an individual is not being honest about their income, OSINT can reveal a lifestyle at odds with a subject’s declared resources. 
    • Failure to declare partner contributions: where an individual is living with a partner with more financial resources but has not declared this, OSINT may highlight relationships that suggest otherwise.  
    • Claiming benefits while living abroad: where an individual is living abroad but continuing to claim benefits, OSINT can provide evidence that a subject spends most of their time/ has interests such as businesses or property abroad.  

    We’ll go into depth on the kind of evidence that can be obtained through OSINT in the next section.  

    What evidence can OSINT provide? 

    Pattern of life 

    To commit welfare system fraud, individuals often lie about their income or living situation. Without access to their bank account or physical surveillance it can be difficult for investigators to identify these lies. However, information shared publicly on social media can often demonstrate a pattern of life that isn’t aligned with the income or living situation an individual has shared. For example, photos of several recent luxury holidays on Instagram may raise suspicions that a claim is fraudulent. 

    Evidence of work 

    Lying about ability to – or availability of – work is also common amongst fraudulent claimants. Again, it’s difficult to prove that an individual is not working without considerable physical surveillance: an extreme approach. However, OSINT can be very useful in revealing this type of fraud. While they may not engage in formal employment, these fraudsters may hide their income from self-employed or casual work – or, in some cases, criminality such as drug dealing.  

    Evidence of this type of work often exists in OSINT sources. For example, fraudsters may advertise their services in local publications or on platforms such as Facebook. Searching known phone numbers or email addresses across these platforms, as well as the surface, deep and dark web, may reveal that they are being used to sell services or goods, indicating that they are in fact working and not eligible for welfare support. 

    Fraud prevention: stopping criminal networks 

    Fraud is not only committed by individuals: organised crime groups often abuse the welfare system, illegally claiming benefits to fund other activities. In these cases, OSINT can be used in a preventative context. By identifying multiple perpetrators as part of a network, organisations have a better chance of stopping future large-scale efforts to defraud the welfare system. 

    Identifying criminality 

    In addition to conducting fraud themselves, experienced criminals attempt to make easy money by selling guides on how to conduct benefit fraud successfully. These may be advertised on social media, or in internet forums, especially on the dark web. Investigators must use OSINT to identify these. Firstly, searching across the internet for key terms used to sell ‘fraud guides’ is essential in order to identify where this is happening and ensure these posts are taken down. Secondly, investigators may be able to use profile information or usernames to trace the real identity of those sharing this information.  

    Understanding networks 

    Even more importantly, OSINT can be used to identify the wider criminal networks behind these fraud efforts, ultimately helping to prevent more fraud from occurring. Interactions on social media posts, as well as multiple uses of contact details such as phone numbers or email addresses, may reveal other individuals of interest who merit further investigation. Corporate records data may also be used to identify networks of suspicious companies registered at one address – whose directors may be part of organised crime networks.  

    How can welfare system fraud investigators improve their use of OSINT?  

    Fraudsters are using advanced techniques to carry out crimes and steal taxpayers’ money. By investing in better OSINT, investigations teams can fight criminals more effectively and recoup more money lost to fraud. To do this, they should implement the following strategies and best practices: 

    Use a diverse range of sources 

    Many organisations rely on commercial search engines, risk databases and corporate registries to conduct OSINT – but using a full range of sources is essential to successful fraud investigations. Only by combining data from disparate sources can investigators form a full picture of a subject of interest and combat fraud effectively. These sources should include: 

    • Deep and dark web data: Search engines often only access surface web data, which provides limited insight where an individual is not the subject of media reporting. Both the deep and dark web contain blogs, forums and marketplaces where fraudsters are far more likely to operate and share key identifiers such as usernames or contact details. 
    • Publicly available social media: Judicious use of social media is essential for investigators trying to ascertain whether an individual is involved in serious cases of fraud. For example, it may be used to gather the pattern of life evidence explained above, which may show that a claimant has a better financial situation than they have declared. Similarly, groups of individuals liking and sharing posts that encourage welfare system fraud may provide useful clues on members of an organised crime network. 

    Visualise and analyse networks 

    Stopping organised crime networks from committing fraud is key to preventing large-scale losses. To understand networks, investigators must be able to understand how data from different sources is connected. Network visualisation is the best way of doing this: investigators can spot key connections more quickly and understand the fastest route to disrupting fraudulent activity. Tools that support network visualisation and analysis are indispensable to fraud investigation teams. 

    Future-proof processes with OSINT technology  

    To prevent and disrupt fraud, government organisations must invest in technology that supports more effective use of OSINT. The scale of fraud in the UK means that investigators do not have time to conduct in-depth manual OSINT investigations – yet ignoring OSINT is tantamount to ignoring fraud.  

    Videris, our OSINT solution, helps fraud investigators to identify and stop perpetrators at speed. Investigations teams using Videris benefit from:  

    • 400% increases in efficiency: by automating data collection from the huge range of sources investigators may need to review and providing analytical tools to help investigators cut through the noise to relevant content. 
    • Improved effectiveness: automated network visualisation and analysis allow investigators to spot connections across disparate data types and identify key players in fraud networks. 
    • Fast ROI: because Videris helps fraud investigators to catch more criminals, faster, public sector organisations can recoup more losses in the same amount of time.  

    By investing in an OSINT solution, organisations can equip their counter-fraud teams for the future. With effective OSINT, investigators will not only be better-placed to identify instances of fraud and those behind them, but also to prevent future fraud, and ultimately to avoid damaging losses.  

    [1] National Statistics: Fraud and error in the benefit system Financial Year Ending (FYE) 2023

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