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Identity theft victim hounded by Austria for child support

A German man who was falsely accused of fathering an Austrian boy and received demands for child support payments after his identity was stolen has said he plans to sue the Austrian authorities for damages.

Identity theft victim hounded by Austria for child support
Horst with his real son. Photo: Private

The 32-year-old man, named in Austrian media only as Horst W., said he was astonished to receive a letter from a court in the state of Salzburg in January last year, informing him that he owed child support of at least €200 a month to an Austrian woman and her then five-year-old son – who he was supposed to have fathered. He was told the payments were due until 2020.

“I was stunned,” Horst, from Leverkusen, said. He had never met the woman from Kuchl in Salzburg before, and realised that he must be the victim of identity theft. In 2011 he had received a call from the police telling him that an identity card he had lost in 2007 was being used in Austria.

Horst said that a long battle with Austrian bureaucrats followed. “It was all very hectic. I had to find a lawyer as soon as possible – and at first nobody wanted to take the case on,” he told Austria’s Kurier newspaper.

On June 15th last year he had to appear in court in Hallein. “The court quickly established that I couldn’t be the boy’s father, because I never had sex with the woman – something she testified to.”

However, the Austrian youth welfare authority refused to believe the court’s verdict and continued to pursue Horst for the child support payments.  “They had found a scapegoat and they insisted I pay”, he said. It was only when he got in touch with an Austrian television series which was investigating controversial court cases that the youth welfare authority backed down.  

Hallein district commissioner Helmut Fürst said that he only found out about the case when he was contacted by journalists from Austrian broadcaster ORF. “The next day I told the youth welfare office to withdraw their demands,” he said, conceding that officials had gone totally overboard but that they had only been “prioritising the child's welfare”.

In mid-December Austria’s supreme court ruled that Horst was not the father and he was finally off the hook. However, he still owes his lawyer more than €4,000, which he says is “a hell of a lot of money” considering he doesn’t earn much from his job as a chef in a canteen and he has his own family and young son to support.

He has taken out a loan to cover his lawyer’s fees and now wants to sue Hallein’s youth welfare office for damages. “We’re still considering what to do, but a lawsuit looks likely,” his lawyer Karl-Heinz Pühl said.

Horst still hasn’t received an apology from the Austrian officials but says that he feels sorry for the Austrian single mother and her son. “She apologized to me for what had happened. I thought she seemed really nice. She seemed quite sad – she had fallen in love with a man she never really knew.”

Meanwhile police in Austria are still looking for the fraudster and real father of the boy and say that there have been reports matching his description in Upper Austria, Styria and Salzburg.

“We’re certain that he will soon be found,” police spokeswoman Valerie Hillebrand said.

For members

LIVING IN AUSTRIA

What happens if you get arrested in Austria?

It’s always good to know your legal rights when living as a foreigner in Austria - including if you get in trouble with the police.

What happens if you get arrested in Austria?

Getting arrested is probably not high up on a list of must-dos for international residents in Austria, but it’s not a bad idea to know what would happen if you did.

In a nutshell, the process in Austria is similar to most other countries in that you have to be suspected of committing a crime to be arrested.

But what happens next? What are your rights? And how long can someone be held in custody?

Here’s what you need to know.

FOR MEMBERS: EXPLAINED: What cyclists and drivers in Austria need to know about new rules

When can someone be arrested in Austria?

If someone is suspected of being a criminal, they can be arrested by the police and taken to a police station for questioning. 

Under the Austrian Code of Criminal Procedure, suspects must be informed of their rights as soon as possible, or at the very least before being interrogated by the police.

They also have a right to remain silent or to make a statement, as well as consult a lawyer.

According to Vienna-based attorney Evert Vastenburg, the initial detainment after arrest can last up to 48 hours while a judge decides whether a person should remain in custody or not.

A suspect can then be released on bail or under certain conditions, such as handing over a passport to police.

However, those suspected of serious crimes that typically lead to a prison sentence of 10 years or more (if found guilty) are almost always remanded in custody.

READ MORE: Austria wary of cyber attacks after personal data of foreign residents leaked online

When is someone remanded in custody?

To be refused bail and remanded in custody, there must be serious suspicion that another crime could be committed. 

The judge also must believe there is no other way to deal with the suspect. For example, he/she needs to be readily available to the authorities for questioning.

Another valid reason to keep someone in custody past the initial 48 hours is the risk of someone absconding. In fact, Vastenburg says a flight risk is often assumed with people that do not live and work in Austria.

Other reasons to deny a suspect release are a risk that evidence will be destroyed, witnesses will be contacted, or there is a possibility that further crimes will be committed.

What happens if bail is denied?

If bail is denied and a person must be held in custody for more than 48 hours, they have to be legally represented by a lawyer.

If a suspect can’t afford to hire a lawyer, they will be appointed a Verfahrenshilfe (public defender) by the state.

The case will be then reviewed by a judge on a regular basis to decide if custody should continue.

The first review will take place after 14 days, then at one month and every two months, but a suspect can petition for release at any time.

READ ALSO: Six tourist scams to be aware of in Austria

How many foreigners are in Austrian prisons?

According to data from the Austrian Judiciary, the number of foreigners in Austrian jails as of June 1st 2022 was 4,332 – almost 50 percent of all prisoners.

In relation to the statistics, the Austrian Judiciary states: “The high proportion of foreigners is one of many challenges for the Austrian penal system. 

“In particular, with regard to successful rehabilitation, the fastest possible transfer to the countries of origin is encouraged.

The most common nationality of foreign prisoners in Austria is Romanian, followed by people from the former Yugoslavian states, Hungary, Nigeria and Turkey.

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