Donegal investigators uncover brazen €65,000 Covid scam

March 1, 2023

Workers in a well-known Donegal company exploited a benefits loophole to print off their own Covid certs and defraud more than €65,000 in illegal payments from the Irish Government.

The 34 employees made dozens of illegal Enhanced Illness Benefit claims while still turning up for work and claiming their full salaries.

A number of the employees, all resident across the border in Derry, appeared before Buncrana District Court where they pleaded guilty to the fraud.

All of the employees living in the North were able to claim the bogus Covid payments after realising they did not have to have any proof of medical intervention for their claims.

Instead, all they had to do was to log onto a National Health Service (NHS) website in the UK and print off a certificate of self-isolation.

Dozens of the certs were then sent by up to 34 employees on various occasions between March 2020 and December 2021 to the Department to claim Enhanced Illness Benefit Payment.

This allowed the employees to receive further payments under the Enhanced Illness Benefit scheme of €350 per week while they were already being paid their normal wages by their unsuspecting employer.

Normally, Illness Benefit is a scheme operated by the Department of Social Protection to support people who cannot work in the short term because they are sick or ill.

But the Enhanced Illness Benefit was introduced on a temporary basis as a public health measure in response to Covid-19. Rates of payments of EIB were substantially higher (€350 per week as opposed to €208) and was on a par with the Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP).

The payments were available to employees and the self-employed who must be absent from work in the short term because they had Covid-19 or they had been told to isolate on medical grounds.

Word of the scam spread when one employee realised he did not have to show any legitimate medical proof of isolation and told fellow workers of the loophole during canteen breaks.

The fraud only came to light when eagle-eyed staff in the Control Section of the Illness Benefit scheme spotted an unusual increase in such claims from individual employees of the company sparking the investigation by Inspectors in the Inishowen Special Investigation Unit.

According to Department of Social Protection Investigators, the company for which the employees worked knew nothing of the scam and cooperated fully with the investigation.

Judge Éiteáin Cunningham accepted the pleas in a number of cases and issued fines to the offenders after hearing various payment plans to pay back the money to the Department of of Social Protection were now in place.

Judge Cunningham remarked during hearing evidence “I’m really not impressed. The Government went out of their way to assist families in need over the pandemic period and I’m really not impressed with this.”

The illegal claims ranged from as little as €291.67 to as much as €4,841.67 which overall amounted to overpayments of €65,113.48 during the pandemic.

Senior Inspectors with the Department of Social Protection’s Special Investigations Unit, Morgan Mooney and Eunan McElwaine, gave details of a number of the cases.

The Department decided to consider prosecutions in the 34 cases and to have a cut-off point of an overpayment value of €1,000.

That left 15 employees but even some of these have since left the employment being either dismissed or had resigned.

A total of nine cases are being pursued through the courts with eight employees pleading guilty while summonses have yet to be served on the ninth employee.

It is understood that the Department of Social Protection have opened files on other possible similar breaches made by employees of companies along the border during the pandemic.