Like so many other politicians and municipal employees, Copenhagen's social-democrat mayor, Frank Jensen, is keen to dwell on the growing phenomenon of benefit fraud, which costs local authorities millions of euros every year. The citizens of Copenhagen will soon be able to inform on fraudsters via a dedicated local government website designed to process information on neighbours who may be cashing social security cheques while working in undeclared jobs, or the girl next door who claims to be a single mother but does not live alone. “I am fully aware that this involves prying on other people's lives. The collection of information from informers is not the main goal of our programme, but we have to take steps to counter this problem which is a major drain on our funds. We have a duty to honest citizens to put a stop to the activities of people who believe they have a right to swindle the state. And believe me, they are increasingly common,” insists Frank Jensen.

In Denmark, local governments are establishing specific departments to collect data from informers, and devoting more and more budgetary resources to the fight against social security fraud. And it is easy to see why: the return on investment is virtually guaranteed. With a team of eight special inspectors, Copenhagen is hoping to save 18 million kroner (2.4 million euros) per year; and the local authorities in Horsens, Furesø and Gribskov are actively recruiting more staff for this purpose. Gribskov's website even encourages informers to attach photos of benefit fraud perpetrators — or to link their Facebook pages. "You might say it's borderline unethical, but anyone can look at Facebook,” asserts Anette Larsen, who supervises inspectors in Gribskov.

Pitting citizens against each other

At the same time, she acknowledges that you have to be very careful when processing anonymous letters in fraud investigations. It is not unusual for the victims of informers to fight back by becoming informers themselves. The main investigators will continue to be local government employees who are adept at processing clues and a variety of other indicators to detect fraud. For example, they would want to know why a father who is supposed to have moved to Jutland continues to collect his children from school in North Zealand. This specific example would justify further examination, because the man in question may have registered a new address without moving.

“The idea is not to base investigations on information from informers. That's not our intention. But you have to recognize that we would never be able to solve some cases without help from the public,” explains Janne Nielsen, chief inspector in the town of Frederikssund. Nonetheless, the fact that citizens are pitted one against the other as to who might nor might not be engaging in benefit fraud is a clear threat not just to the social fabric but to the rule of law.