31 Oct 2014

Council relies on tipoffs to spot benefit fraud

An Ashbourne woman who dishonestly claimed benefits totalling £9,926 has been sentenced to a 12-month community order with 100 hours of unpaid work.

Sally Hodson-Ridgway, of George Street pleaded guilty at Derby Magistrates' Court to failing to inform Derbyshire Dales District Council of a change in her employment circumstances when, for two years, she held two different jobs with local cleaning and hotel companies.

The 44-year-old, who has to pay back the overpayment and the district council's £510 costs, started claiming benefits from April 2010, when she declared sole employment with the cleaning company at a rate of £107.94 a fortnight.

But an investigation by council fraud officers revealed that Hodson-Ridgway failed to inform the authority when, in August 2010, she also took a job at a hotel company.

She went on to falsely claim £8,103.03 housing benefit and £1,823.49 council tax benefit.

After sentencing, a district council spokesman said:
This was a serious level of social security fraud over a long period of time.

The district council adopts a zero tolerance policy to benefit fraud because it is not a victimless crime – benefit thieves take money intended for the most vulnerable in our society.

We rely on anonymous referrals from the public to enable our staff to successfully investigate and bring those guilty of offences to justice.

30 Oct 2014

Benefit thief mother escapes jail

A 43-year-old Derby woman cheated the taxpayer of more than £61,000 in illegally claimed benefits.

In what is believed to be one of the highest amounts investigated in Derby, staff at the DWP monitored Amanda Alton, who for six years claimed she was living by herself. But during that period she was living with her husband and even gave birth to their son.

A judge sitting at Southern Derbyshire Magistrates' Court was told that the total amount of money the prosecution and defence agreed had been illegally claimed was £61,066.47.

Judge Jonathan Gosling handed Alton a 12-month prison sentence, suspended for two years, as he felt that putting her behind bars immediately would mean her eight-year-old child would be "the victim" in the case:
Anyone who claims illegally from the public purse to the extent that you did should expect a prison sentence. But I am going to suspend it for a number of reasons. Firstly you pleaded guilty on the first day of your trial which acknowledges your dishonesty. Secondly I have read your pre-sentence report that shows you have been a victim of violence for a number of years. But above all, if I send you to prison today the person who will be the main victim in all this will be your eight-year-old child who will have to be taken into care.
She let it get all the way to trial before her guilty plea.

James Thomas, prosecuting, told the hearing that Alton started claiming benefits in 1999. He said: "The investigation revealed that the defendant was claiming housing benefit, income support and council tax benefit from the relevant authorities. She continued to claim saying she was living at an address by herself but as the investigation continued it revealed that during those dates she was, in actual fact, living with her husband. He was there most of the time and they had a child together and opened a joint bank account."

Mr Thomas said in total Alton illegally claimed £39,711.443 in income support; £17,905.54 in housing benefit and £3,449.50 in council tax benefit.

Sati Harji, for Alton, said her client had now moved from the property. "It is clear there are a multitude of factors which led to this, mainly her poor decision-making."

Judge Gosling also ordered Alton to do 150 hours' unpaid work.


27 Oct 2014

Confiscation order for benefits thief

A fraudster who dishonestly claimed more than £40,000 in benefits has had a confiscation order made against his assets.

The order was granted last week at Minshull Street Crown Court against Gary Betts, 50, of Firswood.

It ordered Betts to repay £261,429, including the amount taken in benefits.

Betts was sentenced in 2013 to 10 months in prison for dishonestly claiming benefits totalling £43,777. He was convicted after failing to declare capital in excess of £16,000 and unexplained income going into his bank account.

The investigation found that he had claimed benefits for his family for almost 20 years, while his wife was driving a Range Rover costing over £50,000 and the family were living a luxurious lifestyle.

Betts had also been found in possession of 3,000 litres of diesel which was seized by Greater Manchester Police.

Following the conviction, Trafford Council staff conducted a confiscation investigation under Proceeds of Crime legislation and failing to fully repay this will see him facing a further three years in prison.


24 Oct 2014

"Single" parent gets £167k in benefit fraud

A woman who fraudulently claimed housing benefit and income support for 14 years is starting a 10-month prison sentence.

Glastonbury resident Julie Rayner was jailed after pleading guilty to four counts of benefit fraud at Taunton Crown Court. Benefit inspectors said she had defrauded the taxpayer of more than £167,000.

Rayner, 50, made a claim for income support and housing benefit on the basis that she was a single parent in 2000. But she admitted that her break-up was temporary, and that she was living with her husband when claiming benefits this year.

Following a tip-off this year she was interviewed by fraud investigation officers from Mendip District Council and the DWP. Under caution she stated that she had briefly separated from her husband after a row in the summer of 2000 and that he did not live with her. When asked where he did live she replied that she did not know. When the interviewing officers pointed out that this was 14 years ago she replied that her husband did reside with her. The interview went on to establish that her husband was in full-time employment and contributed to the upkeep of the household.

Overpayments over the period 2000 to 2014 amounted to £119,651.80 in income support and £47,578.10 in housing benefit.

Steve Shrimplin, principal revenues and benefits officer for Mendip, said:
This is a great success story for both agencies. We’ve successfully prosecuted this person and now over £167,000 will begin to be repaid to the public purse. I urge anyone who suspects benefit fraud to contact us on our dedicated fraud hotline.
This is "a great success"? She took Mendip Council and the DWP for £167k, which we probably won't get back, and she would still be claiming today if it wasn't for the tip off.

In what way does Mr Shrimplin consider this a great success?


22 Oct 2014

Benefit fraudster feigned coma!

H/t to Dave for picking up this case, which involved benefit fraud as well as defrauding his neighbour.

So bizarre, it's best to read about Alan Knight in full here.

But think of all the time it must have taken to bring him eventually to these guilty pleas.

21 Oct 2014

Govt announces cosmetic benefit fraud campaign

The Government is launching an advertising campaign targeted at nearly 50 towns and cities to urge claimants to report changes in their circumstances or risk a jail sentence.

Ministers are highlighting the types of fraud that are hiking up the estimated £1.1 billion benefit fraud bill, such as people who fail to say a partner has moved in or who don't notify the authorities if there is more money coming in.

The campaign also appeals to members of the public to call the benefit fraud hotline if they suspect someone is claiming benefits illegally.

Calls to the hotline topped 150,000 in the last year, an average of more than 600 calls every working day.

Department for Work and Pensions Minister Mark Harper said: "We are giving benefit claimants every opportunity to tell us if their circumstances have changed, as the majority do. But those who cheat the system need to know we will use everything in our power to stop them stealing money from hardworking taxpayers, and that they could land themselves in jail when they're caught.

"Our fraud investigators have new and better methods of detecting benefit cheats so it's becoming harder to hide and more difficult to escape punishment."

Area fraud investigator Jane Baker said: "What might seem like a white lie can quickly escalate into a serious case of fraud, with the claimant suddenly finding themselves owing thousands of pounds to the taxpayer and risking a prison sentence."
We discussed housing benefit fraud only yesterday, and the extent of single parent benefit fraud in the comments here.

Of course total benefit fraud is several times the government figure of £1.1bn trotted out again in this press release. If the DWP wanted to know the real extent of benefit fraud, they would conduct a few intensive local exercises to expose it.

But they don't want to know because they wouldn't be able to handle it nationwide, and the public indignation would damage whichever government was in power.

This is wilful blindness.

There are so many claimants that it's impossible to police them effectively. The point of campaigns like this is to give the impression that government's getting to grips with the problem of benefit fraud. But it can't.

20 Oct 2014

"Staff cuts increase housing benefit fraud"

Government cuts and the strain on the benefits system have made it easier to commit housing benefit fraud than ever before, according to experts.

The warning follows a report from the National Audit Office (NAO) which revealed that the DWP lost £1.4bn in overpayment of housing benefit due to fraud or error in 2013-14 – up from £980m in 2010-11.

Council staff and benefit advisers report that local authorities are being encouraged to cut corners when processing housing benefit claims in order to hit monthly targets imposed by the DWP. Councils are also under growing pressure due to dwindling staff numbers and a rise in the number of in-work claimants of housing benefit.

Housing consultant Peter Barker said that council staff were forced to rush through claims to meet arbitrary targets set by managers and central government. This required processing the most straightforward claims without double-checking their accuracy. "That type of approach is pretty widespread. They call it risk-based verification," he explained. "Sometimes they use IT gizmos to help, sometimes local authorities just devise their own methodologies."

Cuts to the number of staff working in council housing benefit departments, as the Government reorganises how the benefit is administered, have also taken their toll on working practices, Mr Barker said. "If you're going to do something properly it takes time to do it and it needs more staff to do it. It's inevitable that corners will be cut sometimes."

The vast majority of housing benefit payments made in error are the result of mistakes rather than deliberate fraud on the part of the claimant. However, fraudsters have identified and are now exploiting these loopholes.

One frontline housing worker based at a London council, who asked to remain anonymous, said he had uncovered a large-scale housing benefit fraud executed by claimants who had identified that employment records would not be fully checked if they had demonstrated earnings of only £348 a month – or no more than 16 hours a week in work:
It would appear that nobody in any council does any checks on new housing benefit claims, as long as they have a tenancy agreement and payslip. The claims get passported through without a check as to whether or not the documents are genuine or the landlord's bank details are as claimed, the reason being the Government's requirement for local authorities to show they are processing X amount of claims in a prescribed time.

Double-checking takes time and resources which they don't have. Housing benefit fraud has never been easier.

What irks us council bods is that everyone is facing more job cuts this coming year whilst millions [of pounds] are being wasted because of pressure to perform which results in minimal checks.
The NAO's report revealed that although the number of people claiming housing benefit has risen by 5% since 2010-11, funding provided by the DWP to support councils administering the system had been cut by 17%.

Joe Halewood, a supported housing adviser, said that the pressure on housing benefit staff was not only in large urban councils but also in areas such as Derby and Stoke-on-Trent, where families had been placed after being moved out of central London to avoid the benefit cap – the "housing benefit diaspora".

Gavin Isham, advice services manager at Direct Help and Advice in Derby, said that Derby council was already dealing with huge backlogs meaning his clients' claims were taking at least eight weeks to process:
They have lost a lot of their staff. A lot of people have jumped ship. They have got agency staff in. The Government are also pressuring [staff] to get more back in overpayments. They're overstretched.
A spokesperson for the DWP said overall losses to benefit fraud and error were falling, but added that there was "more to do to crack down on benefit fraud".

The DWP hopes that new IT systems to check housing benefit claims and the rollout of the universal credit system will cut fraud by at least £1.5bn. Mr Barker remains sceptical. "People in local authorities say that the data needs a lot of cleansing. It's a labour-intensive task," he said.


If the DWP wanted to know the real extent of housing benefit fraud, they would conduct a few intensive local exercises to expose it. 

But they don't want to know because they wouldn't be able to handle it nationwide, and the public indignation would damage whichever government was in power.

This is wilful blindness.

19 Oct 2014

Jail for 10 year benefit fraudster

A Bedford fraudster has been handed an 18-month prison sentence for stealing more than £43,000 in housing and council tax benefit.

Emanuella Khamis, formerly of St Michael’s Road in Bedford, appeared at Luton Crown Court for sentencing. She had been held on remand since May after being arrested when she visited Bedford Borough Council’s customer service centre.

Khamis was found guilty of all 18 charges of dishonestly making false representations in order to obtain benefits. She had failed to declare that she held savings of £75,000 in an undeclared bank account and also that this money had been transferred out of the country to an account in Iraq.

The deception was uncovered by the council’s fraud investigations department when a member of the financial assessment team queried how Khamis had managed to purchase her flat in St Michael’s Road while receiving benefits.

The investigation uncovered Khamis’ ISA which had never been declared and that she also received some money following the sale of a property in Baghdad, cash she used to purchase the St Michael’s Road property which was then subsequently sold. Khamis stated that the funds from this sale were sent direct to her brother in Baghdad, which later transpired to be untrue.

In total, Khamis stole £36,777.83 in housing benefit and £6,358.025 in council tax benefit between November 2002 and April 2012.

After failing to attend three hearings – two at Luton Magistrates’ Court and one at Luton Crown Court – a warrant was issued for her arrest. When she was apprehended in May at the council’s customer service centre, Khamis was then remanded in custody until the trial.

Khamis pleaded not guilty and opted for a trial by jury which took place over three days in September. The jury found her guilty on all 18 counts and she was again remanded in custody until sentencing.

In sentencing Khamis, Recorder Cane said:
The explanation given by you was clearly and rightly rejected by the jury. You have shown no remorse and had no engagement with probation services and so will receive an 18-month custodial sentence.

17 Oct 2014

Single person benefit fraud - so easy

A benefit cheat who claimed £23,219 from the council and DWP has been caught, sentenced and ordered to pay back the money.

Zoe Adderley, from Warrington, appeared at Chester Crown Court earlier this month and pleaded guilty to three charges of benefits fraud.

Adderley was claiming benefits but failed to inform the council and DWP that she was living with her partner and he was in full time employment.

Adderley had falsely claimed £14135.00 housing benefit and £1663 council tax benefit/ council tax support from the council and £7421 income support from the DWP.

She was handed a 9 month prison sentence which was suspended for 2 years, 120 hours unpaid work and was ordered to repay the overpayments in full.

It's so easy.

16 Oct 2014

Another "single" parent

A Knowsley benefits cheat who falsely claimed more than £76k in benefits has pleaded guilty.

Stephanie Tomlinson, 49, falsely claimed three different types of state benefits for seven years – by pretending to be a single parent.

An investigation by Knowsley Council and the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) found that Ms Tomlinson was claiming housing benefit, council tax benefit and income support benefit between 2005 and 2012.

She pleaded guilty at Liverpool Crown Court to four counts of making a false statement or declaration to obtain benefits.

The judge at sentenced Tomlinson to an eight month custodial sentence, concurrent on each count, suspended for two years.

Ms Tomlinson told benefits staff that she was single, lived with her son and that her only income was from benefits.

But it emerged that she lived with a partner who was in work.

The judge said that she only avoided jail because she would have been entitled to £30,000 over the seven year period if she had applied honestly, and also took into account her family circumstances.

The judge also added that “there was no evidence of her using the money to sustain a high level of living.”