ATHENS (Reuters) - Greece’s biggest pension fund has uncovered 1,473 phantom pensioners receiving benefits despite being dead, highlighting the widespread welfare fraud facing the debt-ridden country.
Rovertos Spyropoulos, head of the IKA-ETAM fund, said steps were being taken to prosecute anyone found to have pocketed the pensions of deceased relatives, with the aim of recouping losses of about 2 million euros ($2.82 million) a month.
The fraud was uncovered after the fund began running checks earlier this year on pensioners born more than 100 years ago, then moved on to those born afterwards, he said.
“I am very much afraid that when the census is completed on September 3 this figure will be multiplied,” he told Skai TV.
The inquiry was launched after the Socialist government, desperate to tame its runaway deficit, found there were some 9,000 registered pensioners over 100 years of age.
That would have given Greece the highest rate of centenarians in the world. According to a 2001 census, there were only 1,716 people over the age of 100 in Greece.
With nearly one-quarter of Greece’s 11 million population retired, pension payments are a major burden on state coffers, which are being kept afloat by an EU/IMF bailout.
Greece’s generous welfare state and bloated public sector have been blamed as root causes of a debt running at nearly 1.6 times its economic output.
The tottering pension system, propped up by an EU/IMF-backed reform last year, is owed some 11 billion euros in contributions by companies and pensioners.
Efforts to return it to health are being hampered, however, by unemployment running at a record level of over 16 percent.
Labor Minister George Koutroumanis, a union leader turned politician, said that every percentage point increase in unemployment was costing pension funds 320 million euros a year in lost contributions.
Reporting by Daniel Flynn and Renee Maltezou; Editing by Gareth Jones