STATE government authorities have clawed back a record $7.5 million worth of first home grants and fines this year from hundreds of Victorians who have been caught rorting the taxpayer-funded scheme.
The crackdown comes as the first wave of alleged fraudsters faces prosecution and potential jail time under tough new penalties introduced by the Baillieu government last year.
State Revenue Office figures show a 15 per cent jump in the number of home owners caught this financial year. Often the 671 cases involved false claims lodged when the grant was boosted in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis, which has resulted in a big spike in the amount of money being reclaimed.
”When you’re offering a grant that ranged up to $36,500 there is a temptation for people to do the wrong thing,” State Revenue Office Commissioner Paul Broderick told The Sunday Age.
The revenue office can investigate and reclaim grants up to five years after they were received, issue ”administrative” penalties equal to the value of the grant, and launch criminal prosecutions. ”We’ve done about 38 prosecutions in the last 18 months, and the courts are starting to come down with much harsher penalties now,” Mr Broderick said.
Under tougher laws introduced last year, rorters now face a maximum 12-month jail term and a court-imposed fine of up to $14,334. The revenue office can also compel them to return the grant and pay an administrative penalty equal to its value. new laws
The most common rorts see first-time buyers use their home as a rental property or fail to disclose they or a spouse have already owned a property or received the grant. More sophisticated ruses involve using false identities or claiming the grant multiple times on the same property or in different parts of the country. Last week, Jarrod Thomas Kneebone became the first person to potentially face a jail term when he pleaded guilty to making false and misleading statements after concealing his relationship with a woman who had previously been a home owner. The 39-year-old contractor was caught when revenue office investigators found bank statement for a wedding dress and reception venue.
Kneebone was convicted in the Heidelberg Magistrates Court and placed on a 12-month good behaviour undertaking, forced to return the $26,000 grant and ordered to pay a $13,000 administrative penalty.
The Baillieu government introduced tougher penalties last year after a magistrate complained in 2010 that he lacked the authority to send a serial rorter to prison.
Mr Broderick said the agency’s sophisticated data-matching and investigative systems, combined with a ”surprising” number of dob-ins by disgruntled neighbours and associates, meant fraudsters were more likely than ever to be caught.
”We would encourage people if they have done the wrong thing to just come forward. There’s a lesser penalty associated with that. But if the investigation continues and you get caught out later on, then the penalties will be much more severe.”
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