A whole island pretending to be blind to get benefits, 8,500 pensioners who faked being aged over 100 and lawyers who claim to earn just €12,000: New book reveals how Greeks cheated THEMSELVES into ruin
James Angelos’ book looks at widespread tax evasion and benefit fraud
Includes case of the island where 498 people pretended to be blind
Also reveals how super-rich bought camoflage for pools to avoid tax
Greece is on the brink of collapse as it decides whether to reject EU bailout
Greece in teetering on the brink of ruin – and it is hard not to feel sympathy for the pensioners crying in the street and the mothers facing empty supermarket shelves.
Yet those reading a new book may find themselves feeling a little less compassionate towards the Greeks. It reveals an eye-popping catalogue of benefits scams and tax avoidance schemes that have robbed the public purse.
James Angelos’ The Full Catastrophe: Travels among the New Greek Ruins lays bare the corruption which filtered through all levels of society – from the islanders who pretended to be blind, to the families who forgot to register their parents’ death and the doctors who ‘earn’ just €12,000 a year – yet live in Athens’ most exclusive neighbourhood.
It was the rumours of an ‘island of the blind’ which first bought Angelos, a journalist, to Greece in 2011.
He had heard that on Zakynthos, something like two per cent of the population were registered blind.
All was not quite how it seemed, however, and it transpired that 61 of the 680 ‘blind’ residents were quite happily driving around the island.
In fact, an astonishing 498 of those 680 were not blind at all – or even partially sighted.
But being ‘blind’ had its advantages – in particular, the €724 paid in benefits once every two months, and a reduction in utility bills.
It was a scam which could be traced back to one ophthalmologist and one official, which was estimated to have cost the country €9 million.
And, as Angelos discovered, it was only the tip of the iceberg.
How big is the problem of disability benefits fraud, Angelos asked the then-deputy health minister Markos Bolaris.
‘Very big,’ came the accurate, but short, reply.
Indeed, when those claiming disabilities were asked to present themselves at government offices so records could be updated, 36,000 failed to do so.
That translated to an immediate saving for the government of €100m a year.
But the fraud was certainly not confined to just disability benefits.
When the government chose to take a closer look at who they were paying pensions to, they found a slightly suspicious 8,500 pensioners had surpassed the milestone age of 100.
An even closer look revealed, 40,000 pension claims were fraudulent. It seems people were forgetting to register their loved ones’ deaths.
It’s not that these scams were not known about before, of course.
A Daily Mail investigation in 2011 revealed the subway system was essentially free for the five million residents of Athens – because, with no barriers, it relied on an honesty system which few were honest enough to use.
It described street after street of opulent mansions and villas, surrounded by high walls and with their own pools, which, on paper, were the homes of virtual paupers.
They were all allowed to declare their own income for tax purposes – and officially, they were only earning €12,000 – or a paltry £8,500 – a year, below the tax threshold.
Apparently, only 5,000 people admitted to earning more than £90,000 a year – prompting one economist to describe Greece as a ‘poor country full of rich people’.
The lengths these doctors, lawyers and businessmen would go to to hide their wealth from the government was, it has to be said, impressive.
According to official records, just over 300 homes in Athens’ most exclusive neighbourhood had swimming pools, and had paid the resulting tax for such a luxury.
But when the government decided to have a look on Google Earth, it became clear these residents hadn’t been totally honest.
The real figure for swimming pools in the area is believed to be closer to 20,000.
But instead of coming clean, there was a boom in sales of camouflage tarpaulins to conceal their existence from the tax inspectors flying over the gardens.
And then there are the tales which seem to be more down to incompetence, rather than actual fraud.
In particular, there is the tale of treasury employee Savvas Saltouridis, who used an Uzi submachine gun to murder the mayor of his Greek mountain town in 2009, who remained on the municipal payroll for years afterwards – even though he was languishing in jail.
He was taking advantage of the complex disciplinary system
Angelos, then working for the Wall Street Journal, was told by retired clerk Apostolos Tsiakiris, who took over as mayor after the killing: ‘You can’t be a murderer and keep getting paid.
‘That doesn’t happen in any other government.’
But what do when so many are cheating the system? It is estimated tax evasion alone might be costing the country as much as €20billion a year in lost revenue, while years of benefit fraud will certainly have added up.
But when Angelos suggested punishing those who tried to play the system, he was given a straight forward – if depressing – answer.
‘If you start putting people in jail, maybe you’ll have to put half of Greece in jail,’ an official said.