3 Jul 2015

Begums bleed benefits system

A mother and daughter posed as 100 different people to milk Britain’s benefits system out of nearly £170,000, a court heard.

For more than a decade, the pair applied for handouts, claiming to be hard-up. They were able to squirrel away £218,500 in multiple bank accounts under different names.

Investigators discovered Tabassum Begum, 41, had stashed £156,000 in 79 accounts. Her 70-year-old mother Bushra had £62,500 hidden in 21 bank accounts in fictitious names, St Albans Crown Court, Herts, was told.

The Begums were caught when Watford Borough Council launched an inquiry.

Investigators unravelled the pair’s complex crimes and were stunned by the size of the fortune they made. Between 2003 and 2012, the younger Begum raked in £35,000 in housing benefits and £11,000 in council tax relief. She also collected £80,000 from the Department for Work and Pensions - despite having enough cash in the bank to buy a two-bedroom flat in her area.

Her mother claimed £42,600 between 2007 and 2013, the court heard.

Faced with overwhelming evidence, the pair admitted fraud.

Bushra Begum, of Watford, was given an 18-month suspended sentence. Her daughter, also of Watford, will be sentenced later this month.

Council officials are now working to recover all of the stolen money.

Fraud manager Garry Turner said: “These prosecutions show the lengths to which we will go to crack down on people who abuse the system. Benefits are there to help the poorest in our society. People who commit benefit fraud are stealing from the taxpayer and we will not tolerate it.“

Actually, these cases show how much you can get away with and how long drawn out is the process to get anything back for the taxpayer.


BBC series to highlight social housing fraud

BBC1 has commissioned a daytime series on the illegal sub-letting of council housing from Shine TV.

The 5 x 60-minute series, Council House Crackdown, will uncover extreme cases of council house fraud and explore its impact on Britain’s growing housing crisis.

The investigation will be presented by Luke Doonan and follow housing fraud investigators from various local authorities as they try to curb rogue tenants who are abusing the system.

Having grown up in social housing, Doonan said:
Illegal sub-letting is not a victimless crime and with nearly 2 million people on the waiting list, it’s crucial that every single property is occupied by someone who needs it.
The series will accompany investigators on dawn visits and stakeouts, as well as talk to those who are waiting on long social housing lists.


Suspended sentence for £33k benefit thief

A woman who was living in Tangmere has received a suspended eight-month prison sentence and been ordered to complete 160 hours of community work after she falsely claimed more than £33,000 in benefit.

Maria Eastaugh, 35, made the claims for Housing Benefit, Council Tax Benefit and Income Support on the basis that she was a single parent.

The fraud was uncovered during an investigation by Chichester District Council which found that during the time when Eastaugh was receiving these benefits, she had a partner living with her whom she had in fact married.

During the investigation it was also found that she had made fraudulent claims while living in the Arun District Council area before she moved to Tangmere.

The overpayments were made up of:

Housing Benefit (Chichester District Council): £13,799.97; Council Tax Benefit (Chichester District Council): £2,414.31;

Housing Benefit (Arun District Council): £6,753.26; Council Tax Benefit (Arun District Council): £1,651.77; and Income Support £8,654.60.

Eastaugh appeared before Chichester Crown Court on June 17 and pleaded guilty to four charges of dishonesty. This was on the basis that she failed to declare her partner in the household and that she made false statements.

Her eight-month prison sentence was suspended for 16 months.

Chichester and Arun district councils and the Department for Work and Pensions will recover the overpaid benefit directly from Eastaugh.


30 Jun 2015

No jail for mum whose £95k benefit fraud was exposed on Facebook

A mother-of-three who claimed to be single was found to be behind a £95,000 benefit fraud – after her Facebook status revealed she was married.

Fraud investigators saw Alison Schooley and her husband were still in a relationship on Facebook.

Checks on their living arrangements revealed his car was parked outside her address. And pictures of family holidays revealed the Schooley's were married.

Schooley faced jail due to the amount she had been overpaid. But Judge Rosalind Coe decided against prison. Schooley left Nottingham Crown Court with an 18-month sentence, suspended for two years.

The ex-pub landlady will be tagged between 7pm and 6am, and will be subject to a home monitoring curfew for four months.

The judge told her: "You have pleaded guilty to these four counts of what is essentially benefit fraud.

"The total amount you defrauded in income support, employment support allowance, housing benefit and council tax, is just in excess of £95,000. This was over a long period of time, beginning in 2006. You understand this is very serious offending and clearly passes the custody threshold."

Schooley's claim began legitimately in 2003 when she a single mum. However, she remained married and reconciled with her husband. She failed to declare to the DWP and Mansfield District Council she was living with him. He was working throughout much of the period, the court heard.

Justin Atkinson, in mitigation, said: "The offences occurred following the breakdown of her relationship with her husband in 2003. She found herself in financial difficulties and claimed benefit. They reconciled. She felt unable to stop claiming benefit. That was enabling them to get by. It is not a case all of the money was used to fund a lavish lifestyle. It was used to support their general living and three children. The fraudulent claim was on the basis she and her husband reconciled. They separated and reconciled during the period, and she thinks she is entitled to some of the money during that period, but she does not feel she had it in her to fight the case. Whilst claiming benefit she was undertaking voluntary work and got a qualification as a counsellor. More recently she has been managing a pub but in the past two weeks she resigned because of what she thinks is the inevitable outcome today."

The 47-year-old, previously of High Street, Tibshelf, Alfreton, pleaded guilty.

She has been living with one her daughters in rented accommodation. "She is hopeful to get other employment, despite her medical difficulties," added Mr Atkinson.

Judge Coe took into account that Schooley was remorseful, accepted responsibility, had repaid £7,000 and would continue to pay off the debt.


29 Jun 2015

Nearly £2m wrongly claimed in benefits from Bristol City Council last year

Fraud investigators uncovered more than £1.7million of benefits which were incorrectly claimed from Bristol City Council last year. The council's benefit fraud team investigated 745 cases in the 12 months up to March. This led to 130 people being prosecuted or sanctioned.

Three of them were sent to prison while 13 were given suspended sentences.

Curfew orders were placed on a further 14 to restrict their movements while 36 were given a total of 550 days of community work and had a range of fines imposed.

More than £700,000 can be retrieved if subsidy payments are collected.

A further £440,000 in fraudulent claims has been stopped by the team.

In addition, the team secured:

+ £26,600 in court costs;

+ £8,500 in compensation awards;

+ £14,600 in admin penalty fines imposed on claimants;

+ £82,800 in Proceeds of Crime Awards.

Benefit fraud is one of the highest risk areas for the council and employed its own investigation team until March. Since then, housing benefit fraud has been handled by the Government's Department for Work and Pensions as a result of welfare reforms. The change led to the council's team transferring to the Government department.

The report points out that the council still has a duty to pass on information to the department to make it easier for benefit scams to be uncovered. It adds that despite the staffing changes, the team continued to focus on more complex and high-value cases. They consistently met prosecution targets which are needed to deter scammers from falsely claiming benefits.

The report says: "The council has been well-served by the team - a highly regarded, professional and successful unit prosecuting or sanctioning more than 1,500 individuals during the last ten years following criminal investigations undertaken by them. The team worked continuously to deter benefit fraudsters by ensuring that this type of fraud was identified and stopped and to ensure offenders do not gain from defrauding the council or the welfare system."

Two members of the team have remained with the council and have now joined the internal audit's corporate investigations team. This will mean the team will have the experience to continue its own work on benefit fraud.

There will be regular meetings with investigators from the Department for Work and Pensions so there is a regular exchange of information.

Case study 1: A joint investigation uncovered Mr and Mrs C who had fraudulently claims benefit from both Bristol and South Gloucestershire councils. Mr C had been working as a self-employed builder during the time that benefits were claimed. The couple received more than £21,000 in payments and went on several foreign holidays during the period they claimed. They were sentenced to 16 weeks' imprisonment and made an arrangement to pay all of the money back.

Case study 2: A fraud investigator spotted that a landlord was claiming housing benefit at an address he had previously left. He had then sub-let the vacated property and claiming £8,122 benefit that he was not entitled to. He initially pleaded not guilty but the fraud team found several witnesses which made the landlord change his plea. He was sentenced to 200 hours unpaid work and ordered to pay £3,000 costs.

Case study 3: Mr R was privately renting property in St George but when he left, his housing benefit claim was checked. It was found that he had failed to notify the benefits service that he had found a job and his jobseeker's allowance had ended. This resulted in benefits overpayments from the council of £3,226. Mr R declined to be interviewed under caution and the case was taken to court where the magistrates found him guilty and sentenced him to 80 hours unpaid work and ordered to pay costs to the council.


26 Jun 2015

Public rightly being softened up for tax credit reform

Some £17bn was wrongly paid out in tax credits in the decade following the scheme’s launch.

Either fraud or mistakes by officials were responsible for the huge sum. And despite efforts by the taxman to reduce the amount handed out in error, the annual total was still £1.2billion over the last 12 months.

It means more than £23m a week is being given to people who have either deliberately lied or failed to inform HMRC about a change in their circumstances.

That amounts to nearly one pound in every £25 paid out in working and child tax credits in 2013/14, the most recent figures available – and a decade since the system was set up by Labour.

The revelations will increase calls for reform of the system, which critics say is wide open to abuse and ‘traps’ people in poverty.

Last night Dia Chakravarty, of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, said:
It is unacceptable that billions of taxpayers’ money is being wasted like this, particularly as we’re constantly told that any tightening of public finances will result in loss of front-line services. The benefit system needs an urgent overhaul so that it can really be a safety net for those who truly need it. Taxpayers simply cannot afford this scale of waste and it’s high time our politicians took the task of tackling it seriously.
George Osborne is expected to target tax credits in his Budget in two weeks’ time as he seeks to find the first tranche of £12billion in welfare cuts.

Senior Tories think tax credits are often used by employers as an excuse for low pay, while supporters say they help the lowest paid and taking them away would amount to an attack on the working poor.

In 2004/5 fraud and error amounted to £1.17billion. It increased to £1.5billion the following year and remained at that level until 2008/9 when it topped £2billion.

In 2010 it peaked at £2.27billion and has since fallen to £1.5billion in 2012/13 and then £1.2billion in 2013/14.

Fictitious figures

HMRC analysis of the data suggests around 820,000 claims are wrong or fraudulent. More than 380,000 families benefited to the tune of £1,000 or more.

Mistakes and fraud often involve claimants not telling the taxman when their circumstances change – such as not declaring a partner or failing to record an income.

Last night HMRC was unable to state how much of the total lost in fraud and error it had recovered over the decade following the scheme’s launch.

Set up by Gordon Brown, the complex system involves two classes of benefit – working and child tax credit – which are worth a total of £30billion and paid to around 4.5 million families.

In 2008, when the former Labour leader was prime minister, he increased the ‘income disregard’ threshold – the level below which benefits are written off – by £2,500 to £25,000. However, the scheme has been attacked for giving companies an excuse to pay staff rock bottom wages.

A study by Citizens UK found that Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons alone account for almost £1billion a year in tax credit payments.

On Monday the Prime Minister vowed to end Britain’s ‘welfare merry-go-round’ and move to a ‘higher wage, lower tax, lower welfare society’.

At the same time Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith attacked firms which pay ‘poverty wages’. He said companies ‘should pay higher salaries’ rather than relying on the taxpayer to top up staff incomes, and accused Labour of cynically boosting tax credits before previous elections to ‘buy votes’.

He added: ‘What we want to see is companies taking a fuller share of paying people a reasonable and decent salary – that is an absolute fact.

Companies should pay higher salaries, which would mean less tax credits from us.’ In the past, Mr Duncan Smith has described the tax credit system as ‘not fit for purpose’.

A spokesman for HMRC said:
The level of error and fraud in the tax credit system is at its lowest level since tax credits were introduced in 2003, and around £1billion less than in 2011. New measures to tackle error and fraud together with a significant increase in the number of direct interventions have delivered real success against the minority who aim to cheat the system.


24 Jun 2015

Couple in social housing and benefits frauds

A Northolt man has been jailed for wrongly claiming nearly £69,000 in benefits whilst renting out a private property.

Ijaz Qayum, 48, of Taywood Road, was sentenced to a total of 15 months imprisonment at Isleworth Crown Court on Monday, 15 June, after previously pleading guilty to six offences involving housing and benefit fraud.

The prosecution was brought by the council after enquiries found that in 2007 Qayum and his wife, Saiqa Khan, 42, who was also charged, had, as the result of a joint homeless application, secured a council property in Hanwell. At this time they had just purchased a property in Northolt on the open market.

They also made fraudulent claims for housing benefit and council tax benefit, which are both means tested, over a period of six years between 2006 and 2012. During this time they were renting the property they owned but failed to declare any change in circumstances.

The couple were found to have obtained the council tenancy by deception, making rental savings of nearly £61,000 where rent was subsidised and significantly lower than private sector charges typical of the area.

Their failure to declare ownership of the property in Northolt and the rental income, plus bank accounts and the capital held in accounts, resulted in them being overpaid more than £11,000 in housing and council tax benefits.

A notice seeking possession for the council property was issued to the couple before it was surrendered in 2013.

The total value of the fraudulent gain attributed to Qayum over the six-year period was nearly £69,000.

Councillor Yvonne Johnson, cabinet member for finance, performance and customer services, said: “Mr Qayum chose to flout the law, taking money away from those who are in genuine need. He behaved dishonestly over a prolonged period when he should have declared a change in circumstances, resulting in the strong action the council has taken against him. This case is a significant result for us, one I hope will serve as an example to others that attempts to cheat the system will be found out and brought before the courts for justice to be served."

The council has already started proceedings to recover the overpaid amounts under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 and a confiscation hearing is set for October 2015.


22 Jun 2015

Light sentences for benefit thieves

Two women have been prosecuted by Brentwood Council after illegally claiming benefits.

Jean Tucay, 40, was overpaid a total of £30,472.20. She failed to notify the Council that her partner had moved in with her.

As a result she was overpaid £27,256.16 Housing Benefit between July 2010 and September 2013, and £3,216.03 Council Tax benefit between July 2010 and March 2013.

On June 15 she pleaded guilty to one charge at Southend Crown Court. She was sentenced to 100 hours unpaid work in the community, was ordered to pay £1,000 costs, a £60 victim surcharge and she must pay back the overpayment in full.

Diane Hibble, 48, was overpaid a total of £6,285.46. She failed to notify the Council that her partner's income had increased and as a result, she was overpaid £5,268.25 Housing Benefit from May 2012 to August 2014, £351.90 Council Tax benefit between May 2012 and March 2013, and £665.31 Local Council Tax Support between April 2013 and October 2014.

On June 12 she pleaded guilty at Basildon Magistrates' Court. She was sentenced to pay £100 costs, a victim surcharge of £15 and must pay back the overpayment in full. She was also given a 12-month conditional discharge.


19 Jun 2015

Leeds benefit cheat claimed over £27k

A Leeds pensioner claimed over £27,000 in benefits she was not entitled to over a period of eight years, a court heard

Shahnaz Begum, 67, made false claims for income support, council tax benefits and pension credits until she confessed her offending to authorities.

Leeds Crown Court heard Begum began making the illegal claims in March 2005 for council tax benefit and income support despite being in receipt of an occupational pension. She then made illegal claims for pension credits between 2008 and 2013 until the deception came to light.

Simon Haring, prosecuting, said Begum had received a lump sum upon retirement in 2005 and thereafter monthly payments which she failed to declare. Authorities became aware of the illegal claims in May 2013 when a pension credit review was held and Begum revealed that she had been receiving too much money.

Mr Haring said: “She said in interview that she had health issues and that she believed that she had earned that money and so it was hers.”

Begum pleaded guilty to one offence of failing to notify a change in circumstances and two of making a false statement to obtain benefits.

She has so far paid back over £6,000 of the money she illegally claimed and faces a further court hearing heard under the Proceeds of Crime Act.

Christopher Smith, mitigating, said Begum was sorry and ashamed of her offending and was of previous good character. He said Begum began committing the offences at a time when she became a widow and had four daughters to look after.

Begum was given a three-month prison sentence, suspended for 12 months, and was ordered to pay costs of £80. Recorder Charles Ekins said: “it is plain that you are thoroughly ashamed.”


18 Jun 2015

Benefit thief ordered to repay £62k

A benefit fraudster unmasked as a £1m property tycoon has been ordered to repay more than £62,000. (h/t Dave)

Dean Ahmed’s benefit from crime while he lived in a comfortable Cardiff Bay apartment in Ezel Court, Heol Glan Rheidol was agreed at a figure of £62,986.

The agreement was reached by prosecutors and Ahmed’s defence lawyers during a short Proceeds of Crime hearing at Cardiff Crown Court on Tuesday.

He was told by Judge Thomas Crowther QC that if he did not pay the money within the next three months he faces being given a further three-year prison sentence.

The cheat was jailed last year after the same court heard he was an illicit property entrepreneur passing himself off as a single, disabled man living on benefits. His fortune was built on dishonestly banking income support benefits for 15 years and later disability living allowance on the grounds he was too ill to work.

In reality he used a false identity to obtain mortgage cash and had built up a hidden property portfolio worth close to £1m.

His secret life unravelled when investigators discovered he owned three luxury properties in Spain, and had a portfolio of seven others in Wales, six in Cardiff alone. Sentencing Ahmed last September, Recorder Paul Hopkins described him as “professional, well organised and ruthlessly dishonest”.

Ahmed was jailed for two years and eight months after admitting 15 charges, including four counts of money laundering, three counts of mortgage fraud and eight counts of benefit and council tax fraud.

Investigators with Cardiff council were first to look into his affairs in October 2011. As inquiries continued the police, the Department of Work and Pension (DWP), the National Crime Agency (NCA) and the Regional Fraud Team and the Regional Asset Recovery Team (RART) all got involved.

Forensic investigation of his finances then found he was actively profiting as a property landlord, and had pocketed substantial rental income from his portfolio. He was found to have a considerable property empire running to three luxurious apartments in Murcia, Spain, and was making regular high financial transfers to banks in the country. The financial investigation also uncovered the sale and purchase of properties, many within the Cardiff Bay area, sourced by false mortgage applications.

Then £62k doesn't feel like much.

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