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21 Jun 2017

Ex-Mayor facilitated benefit fraud

Four-time former Littlehampton mayor Malcolm Belchamber has been found guilty of fraud and forgery offences. The town councillor of four decades was convicted on Monday (June 19), following a five-day trial at Hove Crown Court, the Crown Prosecution Service confirmed. He will be sentenced on July 24.

Belchamber, 70, denied producing a fraudulent letter to help acquaintance Osman Koroma claim increased housing benefit in November, 2014.

The experienced public servant, who was working at the Littlehampton branch of Leaders at the time, claimed colleague Gillian Clifford had written the letter. Mrs Clifford strongly denied the accusation when she took to the witness box.

Belchamber also denied forging a Home Office letter, which sought to claim Koroma had indefinite leave to remain in the UK. The court heard how the letter, dating back to 2004, was found in a box file in Mr Belchamber’s bedroom wardrobe when police raided his home in connection with their investigation into the 2014 fraud. He claimed he had copied it for Koroma at the time but had not studied the contents and did not know what it was for.

Koroma did not give evidence during the trial. He is currently serving time in prison after being convicted of child sex offences in 2016. Belchamber’s case is not linked to the investigation into Koroma.

The jury of six men and six women retired to consider their verdict on Monday. They convicted him of making a false article for use in fraud and making a false instrument with the intention it would be accepted as genuine. Belchamber was dismissed from Leaders for gross misconduct following an investigation into the 2014 letter. The letter, written to Arun District Council on November 25, advised the authority of an apparent increase in Koroma’s rent. It prompted an increase in Koroma’s housing benefit.

Evidence of wrongdoing only came to light after Koroma’s landlord asked Leaders to increase the rent, shortly after Arun received the fraudulent letter. The actual rent increase was less than the £650 monthly fee quoted in the fraudulent letter, leading Arun to question the decrease.

Speaking after the verdict, Arun chief executive Nigel Lynn said: “Arun District Council support the prosecution of Malcolm Belchamber on housing benefit fraud. “We are always on alert for housing benefit fraud and we will take appropriate action against people we believe are fraudulently claiming benefit from the public purse.”

Belchamber, who was Littlehampton mayor between 1982/83, 1992/93, 2004/05 and 2006/07, was made an MBE in 2004 for services to the town. Several witnesses told the court of his good character. They included Littlehampton Cricket Club stalwart Hugh Milner, who described Belchamber as an ‘incredible supporter of the community’. Veteran county, district and town councillor Dr James Walsh also attested to Belchamber’s good work. He said: “I am utterly shocked and in disbelief because it goes totally against everything I have known of his character over the best part of 40 years. He has been a model of rectitude and somebody who you would always trust with anything.”

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20 Jun 2017

Council tax fraudster caught

On Tuesday 13 June Laura Lincoln pleaded guilty at Oxford Magistrates Court to one count of ‘Failing to Disclose a Change in Circumstances’ contrary to Schedule 8 of the Council Tax Reduction Schemes (Detection of Fraud and Enforcement) Regulations 2013. (h/t Tenancy Fraud)

Ms Lincoln had failed to declare that her partner was living with her for a period of two and a half years. She received a criminal conviction and was ordered to pay a fine of £200 and costs for the prosecution. She will also have to repay the overpayment.

This led to a Council Tax reduction being wrongly paid to Ms Lincoln of over £2,400. Investigators found that Ms Lincoln and her partner had been living as a family with their three children for this time despite Ms Lincoln making several declarations to the contrary.

Councillor Ed Turner, Board Member for Finance and Asset Management said: “This conviction reiterates Oxford City Council’s zero tolerance approach to fraud. The Council employs a highly-skilled investigation team who work tirelessly to root out fraudulent behaviour and we will prosecute offenders. It is very import residents claim money to which they are entitled, but residents must be honest about their circumstances, or the consequences can be very serious indeed.”

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19 Jun 2017

Woman admits benefit fraud

A woman who admitted carrying out benefit fraud while living in Widnes has escaped an immediate jail term.

Natalie Hallwood, now of St Helens, pleaded guilty to three offences after she claimed benefits while living in Widnes.

The 31-year-old was charged with making a dishonest representation to obtain benefits relating to her rental obligation when she did not pay rent. She was sentenced at Chester Crown Court on June 2 for dishonest representation as well as one count of dishonestly failing to notify a change in circumstances in relation to £15,000 deposited into her bank account.

Hallwood, who pleading guilty to the offences at Liverpool Crown Court on May 9, was handed a sentence of 36 weeks’ imprisonment which was suspended for 18 months.

She must also carry out 100 hours of unpaid work and pay a £100 victim surcharge. The overpayment, between May 2012 and February 2014, was more than £13,202, with £11,230.30 in housing benefit and £1,972 in council tax reduction.

Cllr Mike Wharton, Halton Council's executive board member for resources, said: “The council continues to place great importance upon detecting housing benefit fraud, as indicated by the fraudulent overpayments it has uncovered over recent years, to ensure that only those who are correctly entitled to receive housing benefit do so and the public purse is not defrauded.”

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16 Jun 2017

Light sentence for £51k benefit fraud

A scrap metal dealer from Wrexham who received more than £51,000 in a benefits scam has been ordered to repay the money.

Mathew Joseph Malanga, of Wrexham, claimed benefits on the basis he was not working - but he was self-employed. He admitted five charges of benefit fraud at Mold Crown Court.

Malanga, 40, was given a 12-month prison sentence, suspended for one year, and told he must repay £51,226 back in compensation at £160 a month.

The court heard he started claiming incapacity benefit in 2003 and continued to do so for 10 years, despite starting working on a self-employed basis in scrap metal.

An investigation showed that within a 12-month period, £82,000 had been paid into one of two bank accounts which he had not declared. He spent the money on drugs, drink and gambling, the court heard.

But it was told three years had passed since the offences, he had re-built his life and set himself up in business.

Judge Niclas Parry told Malanga that he had "cheated the public" for six years.

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So he stole £51,000. He gets a suspended prison sentence and has to pay the money back at £160 a month. With no interest, that will take 26 years.

Preston Council recovers funds from residents

A zero-tolerance approach to benefit fraud has seen £140,000 recovered from residents in Preston. Council bosses say the clawed back funds will be essential as they “strive to do more for less” in the wake of significant funding cuts. (h/t FraudManager)

Officers also recovered four social housing properties not being used as the tenants’ principal home during the last financial year.

They found £140,876 worth of over-payments caused by fraudulent claims or residents not reporting changes in circumstances affecting their benefits.

A council spokesman said: “The Government’s austerity programme has led to a substantial reduction in funding and this means that as a council we must strive to do more for less. “It is vital that we ensure our limited funds are directed towards the provision of essential services and that we minimise our losses to fraud. Preston City Council has a duty to safeguard public funds and therefore has adopted a zero tolerance approach to fraud. As such, we have a Corporate Inquiry Team, which works closely with the police and other agencies to prevent, detect and deter fraud against the council and its partners.”

The overpayments consisted of council tax reduction scheme funds totalling £34,940, council tax benefit of £3,089, housing benefit of £45,668, council tax of £55,726 and business rates of £1,452.

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14 Jun 2017

Suspended sentence for tax credit fraud

A woman has avoided jail after pleading guilty to working tax credit fraud which saw her claim £18,000 which she was not entitled to.

Danielle Hughes, 29, continued to claim working tax credit despite not being in work as she had begun maternity leave.

The defendant was sentenced at Cardiff Crown Court after pleading guilty to fraudulently obtaining working tax credits, at the same hearing

Prosecutor Andrew Jones told the court that Hughes, of Treorchy, was originally entitled to claim working tax credits in March 2012 while working for Serco on a minimum hours contract. However her position changed in December 2012 when the defendant took maternity leave which meant she was no longer entitled to working tax credits, but she continued to claim until April 2015.

Mr Jones said: “The defendant was on maternity leave and she continued to carry out a working tax credit declaration to say she was working when she wasn’t.”

Hughes was interviewed by police in 2015, where she admitted the offence, claiming she feared she would not have enough income.

The case was that while Hughes was not entitled to working tax credits, she would have been entitled to income support.

It was claimed on her behalf that she was falsely claiming due to “ignorance” of benefits she was entitled to.

Her benefit situation was described as “a mess” and she had not been claiming what she was entitled to as she was worried about getting in trouble again.

Sentencing, Judge Michael Fitton QC said: “I am not going to impose an immediate prison sentence but because of the length of time the claim persisted, it was about two years, it has to be marked by a form of prison sentence but I am going to suspend it.”

Hughes was given a 16 week prison sentence suspended for two months and was made subject to a curfew for two months which prevents her from leaving her home between 9pm and 7am.

13 Jun 2017

National benefit fraud totals?

This is the BBC's soothing take on benefit fraud. They are essentially expounding the government's own numbers. By comparison with 2012-13, note how the biggest single item, housing benefit fraud, has shot up, even on the government's estimates. It remains true the the government is not exactly going out ruthlessly to identify benefit fraud. If that was what it wanted to do, it would do an in depth study in one locality and then scale up its national estimates based on that.

Better to let sleeping dogs lie than court political accusations of failure.


Let's start with a question.

What percentage of benefit payments do you think is lost to fraud?

A survey in 2013 by Ipsos Mori suggested people believed that £24 out of every £100 spent on benefits was fraudulently claimed.

What do you think - too high, too low? Want to know the real answer? It's £1.10 in every £100.

The figure is an estimate from an official government document, from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), published last December and refers to the financial year 2015-16.

The figure may well be a lot less than you thought, but it's still a lot of money. In 2015-16, total spending on benefits was £172.3bn, which means that £1.9bn was fraudulently claimed.

The fraud rate - 1.1% - rose from 0.8% in 2014-15, and now stands at the highest recorded rate. That may be because more people are "at it", but probably not.

After the end of the 2014-15 financial year, officials changed their methodology, which has resulted in more overpayments being attributed to fraud rather than claimant error.

The DWP has looked at five benefits in particular - universal credit (UC), housing benefit, employment and support allowance (ESA), jobseeker's allowance (JSA) and pension credit.

They calculated that the largest fraud in 2015-16 - totalling about £1bn - was in the housing benefit system. These fraudulent claims amounted to 4.1% of the total paid out in housing benefit. (But some of the figures are huge - see for instance Southwark.)

In fact, the recalculation carried out recently has led officials to believe that fraud is on the rise in housing benefit, ESA and pension credit, but falling among claimants of JSA.

In UC - which sees six benefits rolled into one monthly payment - the statistics are less certain as there are fewer claimants and the benefit hasn't been fully rolled out yet. But officials believe that fraud in UC is less than on JSA.

Honest mistakes?

Fraud payments are part of a wider category - benefit overpayment - which also includes honest errors by claimants and mistakes by officials.

The total overpayment in 2015-16 was £3.3bn, about 1.9% of all benefit payments.

But bear in mind that not all of that is lost - the department does recoup some of it and £1bn was repaid to the Treasury last year, which still means that more than £2bn was lost.

The DWP's inability to reduce fraud and error to much lower levels led the National Audit Office to chastise the department last summer, "qualifying its audit opinion" in official speak. But the DWP's accounts - and those of its predecessor departments - have been similarly berated every year since 1988-89.

Underpayments

One final point - while some people are being paid too much, others are receiving too little. The amount underpaid to benefit claimants in 2015-16 was £1.7bn, or 1% of total expenditure, the highest recorded rate. Most of it was due to errors by the claimant (£600m) with the other £400m due to mistakes by officials.

So in 2015-16, the government overpaid benefits to the tune of £3.3bn, of which £1bn was recouped, while claimants were underpaid £1.7bn.

It all means the Treasury was £600m down due to fraud and error in the benefits system.

Well that's the BBC's establishment take!

12 Jun 2017

Benefit thief whinges over sentence

A model is facing a prison sentence after refusing to turn up for her community service because she did not want to “mix with scallies” on the bus.

Chelsey Harwood, a transgender webcam girl and model who rose to fame through internet series This Is Liverpool, was tagged and given a community service order after stealing £25,000 of taxpayers’ money.

She was also given a suspended sentence of four months for benefit fraud.

But Chelsey is now facing an immediate jail term after brazenly flouting the conditions of her community order.

The 29-year-old told the Liverpool Echo she hadn’t shown up for her service because she didn’t want to get the bus.

She said: "I haven’t got public transport in years, I couldn’t even tell you how much a bus costs. I would not get a bus unless they paid for it. How do they expect me to get there?"

Chelsey claims her community service placement is 26 miles away and starts at 9am, so she is unable to make it in on time.

She added: "I don’t want to mix with scallies on the bus. Don’t get me wrong I love a scally, I like spending time with scallies – but that’s when I choose to spend time with scallies. Not when it’s forced on me, do you know what I mean?"

A Liverpool Crown Court letter revealed she has failed to turn up to two community service appointments and the judge will consider if she should face a prison term.

Chelsey has claimed that she should not be subjected to unpaid work because she has mental health problems, and her legal team was fighting the ruling.

She has also complained that the tag placed on her has left her unable to go on any dates and has ruined her single lifestyle.

She added: "I’ve got so many plans for the next few months that it would ruin. I’m going to see Queen and I’m going down to London for the launch of a swingers club."

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2 Jun 2017

Nurse struck off for social housing fraud

A nurse who bribed a corrupt Southwark Council housing officer to get a council flat in Peckham has been thrown out of the profession, after a Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) hearing. (h/t tenancyfraud)

Theresa Okondunjokanma was jailed for eighteen months last September for council housing fraud, after submitting a series of bogus documents, including birth certificates for other people’s children.

The NMC panel heard on May 26 that her dodgy documents were accepted with a £2,000 bribe by Southwark Council officer Trudy Ali-Balogun, in May 2004.

Ali-Balogun, 55, was jailed for five years in May 2016, after she pushed through 24 fraudulent applications for council homes between 2003 and 2005. Ali-Balogun made at least £20,000 in backhanders, predominantly helping the Nigerian community in London obtain the public housing.

Okondunjokanma’s fraudulent application cost the taxpayer an estimated £100,000 and she was charged on three counts of fraud. Having illegally gained the Peckham council house, she profited by subletting it to her sister in 2009.

Okondunjokanma was not present at last week’s panel hearing, and submitted evidence via written statements to the NMC.

NMC panel chair Kenneth Caley said: “The panel noted that Ms Okondunjokanma has [portrayed] herself as the victim in her emails and statements to the NMC." In her letter dated April 24, 2017, Okondunjokanma stated that she gone through “the trauma of crown court, imprisonment and compensation of £20,000 paid to Southwark Council for a case [which] I’m only a victim of circumstance.”

The panel noted an apology made by Okondunjokanma, but Mr Caley said: “The panel was of the view that she has not taken responsibility for her role in her crime. The seriousness of the dishonesty has led the panel to conclude that Ms Okondunjokanma’s behaviour is fundamentally incompatible with being a registered professional. The panel is of the view that the public would expect Ms Okondunjokanma to be removed from the NMC’s register as a result of her actions.

“A striking-off order is the only sanction that would satisfy the public interest in order to maintain public confidence in the profession and the NMC as its regulatory body.”

Okondunjokanma’s criminal trial (in September 2016) ended Southwark Council’s crackdown on council housing fraud known as Operation Bronze, which opened in 2011 and achieved 38 convictions, resulting in 42 properties being reallocated to genuine applicants.

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1 Jun 2017

Another fraudster undone by Facebook

A mother who posed as a single mum was caught out in a a £30,000 benefit fraud after her Facebook page gave her away.

Mold Crown Court heard how Tara Littlehales, 28, a mother of two, claimed tax credits as a single mum.

However, her Facebook page showed that she and her partner were living as a couple with their two kids and a surveillance operation was launched by the Department of Work and Pensions.

The court when challenged she spun a complicated story about how the pair had a joint mortgage but they were not living together and her partner had a gambling problem. John Philpotts, prosecuting, said there was no evidence her partner gambled to excess, or at all.

Littlehales, from Wrexham, admitted the fraud.

She received an eight-month prison sentence suspended for 18 months and was ordered to carry out 200 hours unpaid work. She must pay £250 costs.

Mr Philpotts said that the total overpayment from the public purse was £35,000 but she would have been entitled to some £5,000.

Oliver King, defending, said the family had helped to get the money together and it was all available to pay back.

The Judge, Mr Recorder Timothy Petts, said Littlehales had falsely claimed about £8,000 a year – money to which she was not entitled - between February 2012 and December 2015. The money came out of the public purse - money meant to help people who deserved it, not for people like her. He said the tax credit claim had been legitimate to start but her circumstances changed and she had made several monthly declarations to say that they had not.

The Recorder warned that if she had been convicted after trial then she could have gone to prison for 12 months.

She was currently working at two jobs to ensure the money was repaid.

Mr King said his client had pleaded guilty at an early stage in the magistrates’ court and since her admissions to the offence the family had worked hard to cobble the funds together so that the overpayment could be paid in full. He said the money had been absorbed into general expenses. “There was no fast car on the drive or champagne in the fridge, no holidays or extravagant life-style,” said Mr King.

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