While detectives were preparing to raid a New England property this week, the man they were looking for was on a 700-plus kilometre trip to meet an associate with whom he was allegedly sharing the spoils of fraud against NSW taxpayers.
The 21-year-old Warialda Rail man, arrested in Nowra on Thursday, is the first to be charged by a NSW strike force set up to catch grifters swindling money that was supposed to support businesses hard hit by pandemic lockdowns.
The man has been charged with 52 offences, after allegedly submitting $530,000 worth of fraudulent applications for COVID-19 support grants.
He successfully applied for 32 grants, securing $320,000 police will allege he spent on luxury cars, jewellery and gadgets.
A further 19 applications did not result in any payouts.
NSW Police Assistant Commissioner Stuart Smith said the man travelled to Nowra overnight while police were preparing for raids to "visit an associate who was benefiting from the fraud" as part of their mutual involvement in a criminal syndicate.
A Mercedes-Benz ute was seized from a Culburra property on the south coast while police also raided a Warialda Rail property, confiscating a bio-diesel converter, jewellery, computer equipment, and drones.
Police will allege those items are the proceeds of the alleged frauds.
The man is the first to be charged by Strike Force Sainsbery, established in November following a referral from Service NSW of 8000 suspect transactions.
More than 50 detectives are using metadata and machine learning to analyse those referrals to identify cases of fraud against all recent NSW government financial relief schemes related to the pandemic and natural disasters.
"There were things in the analysis of addresses, localities, people involved that obviously sparked interest," in the man arrested on Thursday, Mr Smith said.
"The grants were set up to help, they weren't set up to help organised crime, it's just organised crime chooses to steal from them."
ServiceNSW acting CEO Catherine Ellis said the government has handed out $11.3 billion to support community members following natural disasters and during the pandemic.
The obvious attraction to fraudsters is an "unfortunate feature" of community support funding but Ms Ellis said that is not a deterrent to its continued provision and fraud is suspected in less than one per cent of cases.
"We've also stopped a great deal of applications in their tracks and not paid them," she said.
NSW Digital and Customer Service Minister Victor Dominello said fraudulently taking money from micro business grants set up to support people during the pandemic was a "particularly low act" that was "akin to looting".
Some of the money may have been awarded in error to people who did not mean to defraud the system and those people can contact ServiceNSW to return it.
"Otherwise police will be knocking on your door," Mr Dominello said.
The man arrested on Thursday is due to face Nowra Local Court in January. - Australian Associated Press
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