5. Procedures and implementing good practice
The Council has a range of measures to combat tenancy fraud. These include preventative measures to prevent tenancy fraud from entering the system in the first place and detection measures.
The Council actively seek to prevent tenancy fraud from the outset. The key points at which social housing fraud is most likely to be prevented is at the application stage and during the sign up stage if an applicant is being considered for a property.
Making an application
Before a potential tenant is accepted onto the Council’s waiting list, identity, address and financial checks are carried out to verify the information provided by the applicant. Devon Home Choice has comprehensive procedures which should be followed during the application stage.
Start of the tenancy
We carry out comprehensive ‘sign up’ interviews during which we undertake a series of identification and verification checks. We ensure that the prospective tenant and their family/household circumstance are what they say they are. Proof of address is sought prior to the tenancy being granted and birth certificates are also required for all children living at the property.
The Council endeavours to ensure we allocate the right people to the right home. Staff involved in the process are aware of the potential for tenancy fraud and the importance of the sign up process for preventing tenancies being obtained by deception. Where a property has been obtained by deception and false statement the tenant can be prosecuted within the first 6 months of the tenancy under the Housing Act.
Appendix A details the documents we accept to validate identity and residency.
Evidence of identity and residency should be photocopied by the officer, the officer should then sign, print name, print position and date the photocopy with the statement ‘I can confirm this photocopy is a true and accurate photocopy of the original document’.
Use of photographs
We require photo identification at the sign up interview (see appendix A) and if this is not forthcoming we take photographs of the tenant. Copies of the photo identification or the photo are stored on the house file and in accordance with the Council’s Data Protection Policy.
Detection & deterrence
The Council will actively detect cases of tenancy fraud.
Settling in visits
Within 6 weeks of a new tenant moving into sheltered accommodation they are visited by a Mobile Support Officer. For general purpose housing an Estate Management Officer will visit within 3 months of moving in. The purpose of the visit is to ensure that the new tenant has moved in and is using the property as their principal home. The Officer will validate the tenant’s identity to ensure it corresponds with the information held on file and ensure that all household members are in occupation, particularly all children detailed on the housing application. The visit is also an opportunity to check that they have no outstanding issues and are receiving any help or support that they may require.
Tenancy audits can be a high-impact method for detecting and deterring tenancy fraud. The Estate Management Officers carry out in-depth unannounced estate inspections often referred to as ‘blitz days’ once a year. This involves visiting every property within a designated area and checking on who is living in the home. The primary purpose of the tenancy audits is to validate the identity and occupancy of the property. A tenancy audit checklist is completed at the visit (see Appendix B). Visiting Officers obtain the names and dates of birth of the tenant and all household members including relatives living at the property and lodgers. Documents to validate identification and to prove residency are requested from the tenant (see Appendix A for list of accepted documents). A record of the visit and details are recorded onto the Tenancy Audit spreadsheet. The Estate Management Officer will follow up any suspected cases of tenancy fraud.
Where practicably possible when conducting tenancy audits we will follow good practice and the procedures listed below:
- Programmed visits should take place during spring/summer months with lighter evenings as this increases the likelihood of tenants opening their doors and reduces health & safety risks for visiting officers.
- Staff conducting visits should wear ID badges.
- A risk-based approach should be taken to visiting properties in pairs.
- Visits should be unannounced, the date and time of visits should be kept confidential to avoid residents becoming aware of planned visits.
- A standard tenancy audit pro-forma with scripted questions should be used for all visits (see Appendix B – Tenancy Audit form).
- Where the Council holds photographs of tenants on housing records, a copy of them should be provided to the visiting officer.
- If the registered tenant is not present at the time of the tenancy audit, the pro-forma should include a set of standard questions to be asked of whoever is present at the time. Information gathered at this stage may help to inform any future investigation.
- The tenancy audit form should be signed and dated on completion by the tenant, or where the tenant was absent, the person providing the information, and countersigned by the visiting officer.
- Three unannounced visits should be conducted at different times before requesting the tenant contacts the office.
- Where visits are made outside office hours a senior member of staff should be accessible on one of the Council’s telephone numbers to reassure tenants with concerns about bogus callers. This number should be visible on the tenancy audit pro-forma.
- Failed calls should not be ‘carded’ until three attempts to catch the tenant at home have been made.
- Tenancy visits can be used to capture photographs of tenants who have held the tenancy prior to the introduction of photographs at ‘sign up’.
- Informal checks with next door neighbours can provide helpful information about who is living in the property and the best time to call.
- Where the visiting officer is unable to catch the tenant at home following three unsuccessful visits the case should be referred for further investigation.
Good practice suggests introducing a checklist for targeting ‘high risk’ tenancies where:
- There has been no contact with the tenant for the past 6 months.
- Properties where there is no access for gas servicing.
- Where no repairs have been reported in the previous 12 months
- Tenancies where consent to sublet was previously refused, or period for which consent was granted has expired.
- Accounts where the rent is always paid:
- Several months in advance or where there is significant credit on the rent account;
- In cash;
- Where the name on the bank standing order or direct debit does not match with that of the tenant.
We will periodically review potential ‘high risk’ tenancies.
Devon Social Housing Fraud Forum (DSHFF)
East Devon District Council is a partner of the Devon Social Housing Fraud Forum (DSHFF). The forum, which includes 10 local authorities and registered providers within the Devon Home Choice Partnership, was formed after a successful bid for funding from the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG). The funding was for 2 years from 2013 to 2015 and is used to employ 3 Tenancy Fraud Investigators based at Plymouth City Council. The main aim of the DSHFF is to investigate and prosecute where appropriate cases of possible social housing fraud from participating Devon Home Choice partner landlords.
Responding to reports of suspected tenancy fraud
Public reports of suspected tenancy fraud are an important source of information. Local residents are in a good position to notice changes in their neighbourhoods. We encourage staff and tenants to report any suspected incidents of tenancy fraud. We have a confidential fraud hotline available (01395 517494) where you can leave a message.
Good practice recommends that all staff and tenants should have clear advice on:
- How to report suspected incidents of tenancy abuse
- The investigation stages involved
- A named contact with responsibility for undertaking investigations
- The type of evidence required to be successful
Our Estate Management Officers follow up any reported incidents and refer them to the DSHFF. The DSHFF will lead any investigations with assistance from the Estate Management Officers.
The Council takes tenancy fraud very seriously and will take action to regain possession of properties. Housing staff receive relevant periodic training on tenancy fraud and have a clear procedure to follow.
We recognise the role members of the public play in detecting tenancy fraud. In order to raise awareness of tenancy fraud the Council will:
- Undertake periodic publicity campaigns
- Publish articles in Housing Matters magazine
- Put information on our website
- Put information in our tenants handbook
- Put up notices and posters in our community centres
- Liaison with tenant groups
- Use existing communication mechanisms such as rent statements and repair receipts.
- Publicise successful prosecutions
National Fraud Initiative (NFI)
The Council will take part in the National Fraud Initiative which is a data matching exercise run by the Audit Commission every two years. We will use the information obtained through the initiative to its full potential to help combat tenancy fraud.