Council to target ‘cash for keys’ racket

Published: Thursday 25th April 13

The town hall’s team of fraud investigators are to step up their work in recovering council and housing association-owned properties from people who have no right to be living in them.

The fraud team will be expanding its efforts to tackle people who have moved into social housing units in the borough after buying the keys from previous tenants.

Last year the team were successful in recovering 44 properties where tenants had illegally sub-let council-owned properties to friends or relatives or simply sold the keys for cash.

After establishing that these occupants had no lawful right to be residing in these properties, the council evicted them and gave the keys to 44 households with legitimate housing needs on the waiting list.

Now a dedicated team will be targeting housing fraud across the borough. Over the next two years they will actively target around 23,000 social housing units in Wandsworth to make sure that they are not being used by fraudsters or queue-jumpers.

The team will carry out rigorous checks on 17,500 council-owned properties and also on 5,800 flats and houses owned by three local housing associations.

They will use powers from the new Social Housing Fraud Act 2013 to take action not just against the unlawful occupants but also the registered tenants who've gained financially from misusing social housing. These people will be taken to court to ensure they pay back the unlawful profits they've made.

Last year, the council recovered a two bed council flat in Tooting after discovering the registered tenant was renting it out and living off the proceeds in a house she'd purchased in Croydon.

A property in Roehampton was taken back after it was advertised for rent on the Gumtree website. When questioned the tenant denied he'd let the flat out and claimed the woman living there was "a disgruntled ex-girlfriend" - even though she had a signed tenancy agreement with him.

Another flat in Roehampton was identified during routine background checks, which found an Italian national living there but no trace of the official tenant - apart from piles of unopened post.

And a property in Battersea was being rented out by a tenant who'd moved abroad to retire, while another was being rented out by a woman who was living and working on the Continent.  

Across England as a whole approximately 50,000 council and housing association-owned homes are thought to have been illegally sublet.

The fraud team's work over the next two years will be partly funded by a Government grant of £150,000 which the council was able to successfully bid for based on its well-established track record   of rooting out illegal subletting.

Cabinet member for housing Cllr Paul Ellis said: "The council has a solid record of combating this type of fraud which deprives homeless people and families in severe housing difficulties of getting a permanent roof over their heads. 

"The people who engage in this type of illicit behaviour are selfishly lining their own pockets at the expense of some very vulnerable families who desperately need somewhere suitable to live.

"That is why I'm delighted we have been given this additional money to expand the work we are doing in targeting this type of fraud. Over the next two years we will be stepping up our efforts to catch those involved in selling keys for cash so that we can hand these properties over to households that genuinely need them.

"Anyone tempted to abuse the system needs to think again. We will be redoubling our efforts over the next 24 months and anyone who is caught will lose the property, face legal action in the courts and every chance they will have to hand back any money they've made.

"As well as our own background checks we also get a steady stream of tip-offs about bogus tenants and illegal sub-lets from neighbours who are outraged that someone is trying to cash in on these scarce and valuable public resources."

Anyone with information about bogus tenancies in Wandsworth can call the subletting hotline on (020) 8871 6556 or email hms@wandsworth.gov.uk.

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