The Australian Taxation Office has 19 active criminal investigations into fraud against the $101 billion JobKeeper scheme.
It has also issued fines to another 19 applicants to the wage subsidy program who have made false or misleading statements, and is considering penalties for another 24.
Since JobKeeper was launched in March, the ATO has clawed back $120 million in payments to applicants who made it into the system but were later found to be ineligible.
“While most businesses and employees are doing the right thing, we have identified concerning and fraudulent behaviour and claims by a small number of organisations and employees,” the ATO said in a statement.
The agency declined to comment on whether the criminal investigations relate to employers or employees and would not provide details about any of the businesses involved or when the investigations began.
However, ABC Investigations understands employers and individual workers are being investigated over fraud and abuse of the scheme.
Applicants could face a prison sentence or fines if found guilty of defrauding the scheme.
The program was designed to keep workers in jobs during the COVID-19 economic crisis by paying struggling business $1,500 per fortnight for each eligible employee.
In July, the federal government extended JobKeeper to March 2021 but reduced the fortnightly payment to $1200 for full-time workers and $750 for part-timers and casuals from September.
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg is expected to downgrade the estimated final cost of the scheme in December’s mid-year economic and fiscal outlook, after the number of workers on JobKeeper almost halved in October as the economy gathered pace.
In a statement, Mr Frydenberg said the government was “committed to ensuring the integrity of the JobKeeper payment.”
“Comprehensive integrity and compliance arrangements have been put in place to support the delivery of the JobKeeper payment,” he said.
“To date, the ATO has reported that the vast majority of JobKeeper applicants are doing the right thing with very low incidences of fraud being observed.”
The fraud investigation revelations come as the Australian National Audit Office considers its own probe into the scheme.
According to its website, the ANAO has flagged JobKeeper for a potential audit in 2021 that would include an “examination of the implementation of integrity measures designed to protect the scheme against fraud and other abuse.”
The ATO fraud hotline has received more than 10,000 tip-offs about fraud against JobKeeper, including claims that some employers have not been passing on the full subsidy to their employees.
ABC Investigations has also spoken to workers concerned that their employers may have artificially suppressed their revenue in order to qualify for the scheme, for example by delaying invoicing customers or removing popular items from sale in retail stores.
The ATO says it has initiated 14 of the fraud investigations using its powers under the Taxation Administration Act and has referred a further five cases to the Australian Federal Police’s Serious Financial Crimes Taskforce.