Irene asked us to settle an argument on whether Centrelink has the power to check your bank account.
Could you please settle an argument for me? A couple of my friends say that Centrelink can look at our bank accounts any time it likes. I say it can’t, as it would be a breach of the privacy act. Which of us is correct?
A. There are many anecdotal stories on whether Centrelink can and does check bank accounts and the upshot is that Centrelink does not have the power to spot check individual's bank accounts. However, it does utilise data-matching with other Government agencies to weed out cases of possible welfare fraud.
For example, if you were to provide Centrelink with one set of figures and information, but the ATO with something different, this would be flagged by data-matching software. Centrelink has the power at this point to request details of your accounts from your bank. This information will be sent in an encrypted form to specialised staff, who will review them.
Centrelink does not have the ability to remove funds from your account; however, it does have several means by which it can recoup overpayments:
- Centrelink will issue an Account Payable letter explaining how much is owed, why it’s owed, when it’s due and how it can be repaid.
- If you do not make repayments, Centrelink can reduce your income support payment by 15 per cent. If you have additional income, the amount can be more than 15 per cent.
- Crentlink can also engage the services of a debt collection agency if you do not meet the repayment schedule.
- It can refer your case to its solicitors for legal action.
- In extreme cases, it can issues a garnishee on your wages, tax return, income and assets or money held in a bank account. This means an amount is recovered and paid to Centrelink.
Centrelink requires details of your income and assets to determine your eligibility for income support and at which rate it should be paid. You will need to advise Centrelink of balance of your bank account, investments, assets you hold and any additional income you earn. In order to streamline the assessment process, Centrelink applies a deeming rate to your investments. This means that you do not have to advise every time your bank account balance or investment returns change – it will simply apply a standard percentage to your total investments to determine an average income return.
However, if your circumstances change, for example you receive lump sum payment, you purchase an asset or your relationship status changes, you will need to advise Centrelink immediately.
Finally, with the increased use of social media, those committing benefit fraud are more likely to be caught. Those in a relationship who claim to be single in order to receive higher benefit payment, only to post the news of a happy even such as a wedding or birth of a child on Facebook, could find themselves receiving a visit from Taskforce Integrity. This taskforce last year netted $2.2 million in Commonwealth debts under a pilot program to identify fraudulent claims and has now been expanded.
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