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Chief Election Officer Fern Narcis-Scope.

The ease by which fraudsters are reproducing fake national identification cards to encash pension cheques in the height of the COVID-19 pandemic is a cause for concern by the Supermarket Association of T&T (SATT) and the Ministry of Social Development and Family Services.

SATT members have also had to deal with people trying to pass off fraudulent pension cheques on them.

Social Development and Family Services Minister Donna Cox and SATT’s president Rajiv Diptee both said false ID cards are being used by criminals to cash Senior Citizens’ pensions.

For months, Cox said, her ministry has been experiencing problems with senior citizens’ pension cheques disappearing.

“Some persons are stealing the cheques and cashing them. We have found that they are cashing it at certain supermarkets.” An investigation revealed that fraudsters have also been printing senior citizens’ cheques as well.

“It (cheques) did not emanate from this ministry…and we got it from the banks where they tried to cash the cheques in supermarkets also and that did not emanate from this ministry, and they were senior citizens’ pension cheques.”

To her surprise, Cox said, in February they discovered that 43 cheques belonging to pensioners in Tobago disappeared in one month. “They (pensioners) did not receive their cheques…only to find out it was cashed in one supermarket in Trinidad.”

The cheques totalling $150,500, Cox said, never found their way to Tobago.

This was not the only incident.

“We have one-one taking place every week. That is just 43 persons there. What about the others? Once somebody steals their cheques we replace it because you don’t know people’s situation.”

These matters, Cox said, have left her heartbroken.

“A lot of them are in a vulnerable state. That is why they get the grants from the State.”

Cox believes a group of individuals are behind this scam.

“I think there is a team of persons out there going around and defrauding vulnerable persons in T&T. We are not sure where it is emanating from but hopefully very soon we will be able to address it.”

The Tobago matter is under investigation by the Fraud Squad.

“So they are investigating that. We are not sure where this problem is coming from. There may be a leak somewhere,” Cox said.

She insisted no loopholes were found at her ministry.

Cox said she raised the issue with Police Commissioner Gary Griffith during a recent meeting.

“If you could try and steal the cheques of vulnerable persons and cash it, then that is a serious situation.”

Recently, she said, the police held two people cashing fraudulent cheques.

“It’s not just a matter of that but there are persons with fake ID cards. So, if the cheque is good, the ID card is fake. But they make the cards to suit the number on the person’s name on the cheque and they go to the supermarket because they probably could not get through in a bank. It is a scheme going on.”

Reviewing the legislation to make changes

She said her ministry can deal with the issue by reviewing the senior citizens’ pension legislation.

Under the present legislation, Cox said, pensioners can cash their cheques at supermarkets.

“We can’t just stop it but we are reviewing the legislation to make some changes. The only thing that I see that we can work on is we may have to stop having the cheques cashed outside of the banks, have them cashed at the banks instead of supermarkets.”

The ministry plans to meet with the Bankers’ Association of T&T (BATT) to fast track the request of pensioners who want Direct Deposit where their monthly pensions go directly into their bank account.

Over 108,000 pensioners are recipients of senior citizens’ pensions.

Of this figure, 70,670 senior citizens collect cheques through Direct Deposit. The remaining 38,000 pensioners receive their cheques at TTPost offices.

Cox said the cheques are “printed by NIB (National Insurance Board of T&T) and TTPost delivers these cheques. They are not sure exactly somewhere between TTPost and the cheques reaching the individuals something could happen. It does not reach the intended target.”

SATT observing a higher level of fraud

During a meeting with SATT, Cox appealed to its members to be more stringent in examining ID cards before cashing the cheques.

“I am not sure if that always happens,” Cox said.

Diptee admitted that SATT has been observing a higher level of fraud since the pandemic.

“The incidents of fraud are much higher…it’s not only fraud but pilferage, shrinkage…It’s something that we are seeing now even with food cards.”

He said anything paper-based has an element of fraud associated with it.

“Fraud has become more complex, more prevalent especially during COVID-19 where people are struggling…It’s a more sinister and more advanced form of fraud we are seeing now. There is this issue of fraudulent cheques. They are able to reproduce these cheques very well and with fake IDs. When we see red flags popping up we touch base with them (ministry) whereas previously we were not.”

The issue of one supermarket cashing 43 stolen pension cheques, Diptee said, was disturbing, but assured his members would not engage in any unscrupulous acts.

Of the 5,000 supermarkets across T&T, only 300 are SATT members.

However, Diptee said from the ministry’s end, there was a need for more checks and balances.

Diptee said SATT plans to meet with BATT to see what additional security measures could be put in place to deal with the fraudulent cheques.

He said SATT members would look for the security features on the ministry’s cheques.

Whenever a false ID is picked up they would not encash the cheque and notify the ministry.

He said holders of fake ID cards would normally visit supermarkets outside of their community to cash a cheque which would raise a red flag.

“Sometimes you take a chance because you want the business. Sometimes you find that people who should be following protocols are not, and then, they take a hit with the cheque.”

Diptee said the whole system needs to be examined holistically.

Narcis-Scope: People replicating old ID cards

Chief election officer Fern Narcis-Scope told Guardian Media that there would be more criminal activities during the pandemic as people look for new ways to defraud the Government. However, she said, the Election and Boundaries Commission (EBC) has a robust system in place.

“The fact that they are able to pick it up tells you the system is robust.”

She said whenever such activities are picked up, the EBC would work with the T&T Police Service and Cox’s ministry to help provide information for prosecution.

“From time to time the police when they do their investigations…whenever they come across that type of criminal activity we would liaise with them to address those matters in terms of providing whatever information the police would require or the courts would require.

“I guess, what perhaps is happening, people are desperate…criminals and people wishing to engage in criminal activity are looking for any and every means they could defraud the Government. I suspect that is what is happening there.”

Questioned if the EBC has been receiving more complaints of false ID cards in circulation, Narcis-Scope said “I have not.”

Last September, Narcis-Scope said the EBC launched a new ID card that has robust security features.

“What I suspect is happening, the older cards is the cards that persons may be attempting to replicate. But this new card is a card that would be exceedingly difficult for persons to pass off. That has a number of not only visuals but invisible security features that a person would be hard-pressed to duplicate.”