Criminal gangs committing tens of millions of pounds worth of benefit fraud are being tracked down using newly-developed artificial intelligence, ministers have disclosed.
Experts at the Department for Work and Pensions have produced computer algorithms that have been gradually rolled-out over the course of the year to identify large-scale abuse of the welfare system.
The system, which is being trialed across the country, detects fraudulent claims by searching for patterns such as applications that use the same phone number or are written in a similar style. It then flags up any suspicious cases to specialist investigators.
It comes as part of a drive by ministers to make more use of artificial intelligence across government and turn the technology into a “world-leading future sector of our economy”.
The roll-out of new system is understood to have begun gradually over the course of the year, one category of benefit at a time.
Ministers believe it will enable authorities to track down and prosecute gangs each fraudulently claiming thousands of pounds in benefits from Britain’s £170 billion welfare bill.
Until now investigators have largely targeted individuals, following concerns are raised by staff at job centres. The technology could later be used to aid the battle against individual benefit fraud.
Officials estimate that the sums lost to large-scale abuse of the system by gangs amount to tens of millions of pounds.
Last year a record £2.1 billion was lost to fraud cases identified by investigators, according to official figures.
A DWP spokesman said of the new system: “The algorithms work by detecting fake identity cloning techniques that are commonly used by fraudsters.
“They are only detectable by intelligent computer programs searching for anomalies in billions of items of data.”
Ministers are planning to roll out the algorithm across the entire benefits system, including to Jobseekers Allowance payments, disability benefits, and Universal Credit.
David Gauke, the Work and Pensions Secretary, said: “We are committed to tackling benefit fraud because it diverts money from the people who really need it.
“We are already dealing with individuals who are wrongly claiming welfare payments and we now hope to further clamp down on organised crime gangs.
“Our fraud investigators work tirelessly to bring all criminals to justice and these trials are just one of the latest and innovative ways we are using this technology to protect taxpayer’s money.”
Fraud swallowed up almost £2.1 billion of the department’s total budget of £174 billion – the equivalent of £40 million per week.
The figures mean that the DWP now loses almost twice as much money to fraud as the entire budget of the Foreign Office, which is £1.1 billion per year.
MPs warned that Mr Gauke had “questions to answer” over why the figures have gone up despite repeated assurances that they would be brought under control.
The DWP claimed part of the reason fraud had gone up was because of better methods of gathering information on it.
Around 5,000 individuals were prosecuted for benefit fraud last year, with officials recovering £1.1bn in overpaid benefits.
The announcement about the use of AI to help tackle fraud follows the publication of a Government-commissioned report in October which found that artificial intelligence could add £630 billion to the UK economy.
The economic boost would come from a combination of more personalised services, improvements in health care and adopting machine learning to find ways to use resources more efficiently, according to the report.
To see that gain, the UK needed to do more to encourage businesses to deploy machine learning and artificial intelligence, it concluded.
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