'Amazing' examples of abuse include $580,000 in payments to an elderly man who had $1m in undisclosed bank savings Dole cheats cost taxpayers $46 million over the past three years, with lax checking and vague rules blamed for the problem, an Ombudsman's report released yesterday revealed. The investigation into the Comprehensive Social Security Assistance (CSSA) scheme found what it described as 'amazing' examples of abuse, including $50,000 being granted for home renovations. Ombudsman Alice Tai Yuen-ying urged the Social Welfare Department to consider 30 improvements, including a review of the eligibility criteria and the level of allowances. The investigation, launched in May, looked into the operation of the CSSA system from 1995 to last year, particularly the preventive mechanism for possible abuses. It also studied 957 cases of abuse out of 288,000 recipients over the past three years. Officers found the cases involved abuses totalling about $46.7 million. On average, each case involved overpayment of $48,700, with one elderly man being paid $580,000 over a decade, even though he had savings of $1 million. It was believed that the cases were only the tip of the iceberg, the Ombudsman said. The report also found a lack of rules in the approval of discretionary special grants to dole applicants. Cases included grants for seemingly non-emergency uses, such as $50,000 for home improvements. 'When we looked at some of the cases, we were amazed by the justification for the grants or the amounts approved,' the report said. Most of the extreme cases occurred before 1999, when the department tightened the approval mechanism. However, the Ombudsman said the guidelines remained too vague, resulting in inconsistency and leaving room for abuse. The report blamed self-declaration - in which officers relied on the word of applicants - and the lax checking of applications. Difficulties were aggravated by the rising number of dole applications, which reached 84,867 last year, making it virtually impossible to scrutinise every applicant's income and asset declarations. Despite that, the Ombudsman was puzzled over why the department was reluctant to resort to criminal action against people involved in confirmed cases of fraud and deception, noting that only 107 out of the 389 abuse cases last year were referred to police. The Ombudsman also blamed the inefficiency of the welfare department's 40-member investigation team in processing complaints against abuses. Ms Tai said she fully supported the provision of a safety net for the needy, but added that vigorous checking of applications and enforcement against fraudsters was needed. A spokesman for the welfare department said yesterday it welcomed the Ombudsman's recommendations, which included a review of the special grants procedure, tightened enforcement against fraud, and a policy review of the scheme. 'We are setting up information boards in our social security field units to display anti-fraud material which will emphasise the applicant's obligation to report changes in a timely manner and the serious consequence of obtaining welfare benefits by deception,' he said. MATTERS FOR DISCRETION The Social Welfare Department's discretionary special grants have included: $50,000 to renovate a claimant's home; Paying part of the cost of a family's passports; $5,000 paid over 17 months to a claimant who reported 'losing' cash on five separate instances; Covering estate agent commission equal to a month's rent, when two weeks' rent is the norm; and Paying doctors' fees for a claimant who said he could not wait for appointments at a public hospital.