The enquiry looked at abuses of the systems operated by the federal and the Flemish governments. The paper produces no information on the other regions.
The governments introduced support measures at the beginning of the crisis, to attempt to ensure the survival of small businesses and the self-employed who were affected by many of the lockdown regulations introduce.
One example was the premium paid to retail outlets forced to close to help stop the spread of the virus – all but newspaper sellers, pharmacies and food shops. Another is a grant from the Flemish government available to businesses whose earning dropped as a result of the lockdown by at least 60%.
“Based on our data, we know that there is substantial abuse of both federal and Flemish support measures,” Eric Van den Broele, senior manager research and development at the business data specialist Graydon, told the paper. “Support is being sought, for example, by front companies that have already been used to conceal other criminal activities, or by ghost companies that no longer have real economic activity.”
Other examples revealed by bookkeepers and accountants include companies claiming a 60% drop in income simply by delaying invoices; others claiming they had been forced to shut up shop while continuing to operate as usual; CEOs who have the status of independents and claiming loss of business and so on.
“There is a hold-up of the state taking place,” said one accountant. “It’s disgusting.”
And what the paper also reveals is that there are little or no mechanisms in place to combat fraud against the system.
The grants and premiums are administered by the state institute for the self-employed INASTI/RSVZ, which at the beginning of the crisis was ordered by the minister responsible, Denis Ducarme (MR), to work quickly and efficiently.
As a result, the institute dealt with 400,000 claims worth hundreds of millions of euros in barely two months. However that quantity may have been won at the expense of quality.
Scrutiny of claims was limited to a check of factual data such as identity and address, said Koen Mortier, director of an organisation that represents the social insurance funds. “Evidence to support the claim was not required. A furniture maker who declares that he has ceased his activities, but who continues to work in his studio, cannot be checked.”
By law, such fraudulent claims can in theory be investigated up to five years after taking place, but Mortier viewed that more as a principle than a working thesis.
“We were able to process all of those claims by enlisting people from other services, but they are now returning to their normal positions,” he said. “We have not yet seen a clear plan by the government to carry out targeted checks.”