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Child-care scammers spared jail for $500k benefits fraud

Photo: AAP

A Sydney couple has avoided jail time for their role in a complex fraud engineered through childcare subsidies and pandemic relief payments totalling over half a million dollars.

Suzy Zreika and Ali Al Sharifi used the running of a childcare centre to claim taxpayer-funded supports and subsidies from the Department of Education throughout 2020.

Both referred to themselves as “silent owners” of ABC Kids N Care Family Day Care in phone calls intercepted by police.

The scheme involved altering business documents including falsifying children’s care times, creating entirely fictional staff members for claims, and claiming subsidies for activities that were not covered by the Commonwealth including school runs.

$575,119.76 in  payments

They were then able to claim childcare subsidies and the COVID-19 exceptional circumstances supplementary payment, with huge financial benefit, despite some services not being claimed and others not provided at all.

Between March 15 and October 21, 2020 the company received $575,119.76 in payments made as part of COVID-19 relief package and child care subsidies with $193,710.35 transferred to the pair’s personal accounts.

“It’s relevant that the offending took place in a regulated industry,” Judge Warwick Hunt said on Friday, but noted that ABC Kids did function at least in part legitimately and did not appear to be solely set up for financial fraud.

In sentencing the pair in the District Court, the judge took into account both Zreika and Al Sharifi’s guilty pleas, as well as their respective family situations, health conditions and parental care responsibilities.

Both were sentenced to two years of an intensive corrections order, meaning they will serve a custodial sentence in the community with conditions including good behaviour and undertaking any referrals from their GPs for mental health treatment.

Zreika was also fined $15,000 for her role in the scheme, which Judge Hunt described as the “being at the coalface” of the scheme and entailed a “great deal of co-ordination” in concealing and claiming the subsidies and relief payments.

False visa declaration

Al Sharifi was order to pay $10,000 for his role as owner of the business, described as being “the boss”, despite being less involved in the day-to-day running of the scheme.

They were ordered to serve 200 and 150 hours of community service respectively in addition to their custodial orders.

The maximum penalty for dishonestly causing a loss to the Commonwealth is 10 years’ imprisonment.

Zreika sat in the court dock for sentencing wearing a black hijab and glasses, while Al Sharifi sat next to her dressed in a grey suit.

Zreika’s sentence also encompassed a further offence of providing a false declaration for a partnership visa for a separate man named Mohamad Yassein.

Judge Hunt described a “misplaced sense of loyalty to Mr Yassein” that caused Zreika to make the declaration despite the two not being in an intimate relationship.

“Both of these offenders now pose very low risks to community safety,” he said while detailing the high likelihood for rehabilitation and low risk of re-offending.

-AAP

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