16 Jan 2017

Another belated keys amnesty

How slow can councils be?

Tenants who have made a false housing application – such as an unauthorised sublet – are being offered a “key amnesty” in a bid to free up local homes.

But from February the council says it’s starting a major clampdown on tenancy fraud, using data matching technology to net culprits. The aim is to make more council and housing association homes available for those in genuine need.

East Dunbartonshire Council and Antonine and Hillhead housing associations say the offer is open until January 31 - carrying on from the same deal offered in December.

It means anyone who has made a false housing application, or sublet their home without permission, or no longer stays in the property, will be given the chance – “no questions asked” – to avoid prosecution.

There are currently more than 5,350 social housing properties in East Dunbartonshire, of which around 3,500 are owned by the council.

The cost to the public purse for each case of tenancy fraud is said to be around £93,000, and it also deprives a family of a home.

Someone commits tenancy fraud if, for example, they give false information about themselves, or use false documents when applying for housing, or have a social housing tenancy already but live somewhere else. It’s also fraud to sublet all or part of the home to someone else without the consent of their landlord.

The council warns anybody committing tenancy fraud could not only face having a criminal record but could ultimately face a prison sentence.

Council leader Councillor Rhondda Geekie said: “We are experiencing an acute housing shortage in East Dunbartonshire and our social housing stock is vital to helping us address this. People subletting homes illegally are depriving another family of a permanent place to stay and it’s unfair to the thousands of people on our housing list, many of whom have been waiting a long time for a property. Anyone who hands in their keys to end their tenancy or removes their name from the waiting list during the amnesty will not have legal action taken against them and the council can re-let the properties to legitimate applicants. In these times of such financial constraints, it is more important than ever that we uncover all fraud against the Council. We will continue to work with our partners to ensure that social housing is going to the people and families who need it.”

Stephen Macintyre, Director of Hillhead Housing Association, said: “In the past the Association has found it frustrating that its powers to deal with tenancy fraud have been very limited, but now this joint approach offers a more effective means of dealing with people who obtain a tenancy fraudulently. We hope that this amnesty will help to ensure that only those in genuine need of a home get one."


10 Jan 2017

Benefit fraud was part of his toolkit

Self-made millionaire Kate Stewart cried in court as her husband was jailed over a £427,000 mortgage fraud.

Graham Stewart, 43, from Aintree, lied about his job and salary and provided forged documents to buy houses.

The convicted drug dealer later bought a BMW on finance before cancelling his direct debit and shipping it to Cyprus, where it “disappeared”.

After filing for bankruptcy, he hid assets including foreign villas and a £35,000 Rolex watch and sold his home to a company he was a beneficiary of. Liverpool Crown Court heard he had the audacity to then rent the house back to himself, while claiming more than £7,000 in housing benefits.

Mrs Stewart, 34, the former boss of Liverpool’s Heritage Markets, wrote to Judge Neil Flewitt, QC, saying her husband was now a changed man. But jailing him for five and a half years, Judge Flewitt said: “These offences represent an unbroken course of dishonest conduct.”

Property manager Stewart’s crimes came to light when he was investigated after filing for bankruptcy in 2010. He admitted three counts of obtaining services by deception and one of fraud between June 2004 and April 2007.

David Potter, prosecuting, said he secured advances of £172,500, £88,774 and £100,000 from mortgage lenders for homes in Gateacre, Maghull and Accrington.

He claimed to work for a company called All Trades Limited and earn up to £90,000 a year in wages and rental income. He made the same false claim to another lender for an £111,479 remortgage of the Lancashire property.

Stewart admitted theft after buying the BMW in 2008 with £58,000 of finance, but stealing it in July 2009. Judge Flewitt said: “You made relatively few payments before cancelling your direct debit mandate and arranging for the car to be shipped to Cyprus in the name of your brother, where it disappeared from view and out of reach of the finance company.”

The court heard Stewart hid documents from the Official Receiver revealing assets that could have cleared his debts. He admitted failing to hand over books, and four counts of concealing criminal property between November 2010 and December 2011.

This included two cash-generating villas in Cyprus and the Rolex watch - found in a safe at his home.

He tried to protect his Iris Park Walk, Maghull home by selling it to Cyprus-based NEFEA Limited, of which he was a beneficiary. Stewart admitted £7,257 of benefit fraud, which Judge Flewitt described as “a particularly cynical piece of dishonesty”. He said: “You rented it back and claimed housing benefit at the rate of £550 per month, even though you were in fact at the time enjoying a rent-free period.”

The crook admitted two breaches of a restraining order made during the investigation to curb his lavish lifestyle. He rented a £2,000 per month Aughton home - twice the amount he was allowed to spend - and paid £7,000 towards a BMW he later sold.

Stewart was jailed for seven years for conspiracy to supply heroin in 1999 and was still on licence at the time of the first offence.

Matthew Radstone, defending, said he had since married, had children and completely turned his life around, tackling his alcohol and drug problems. He said Stewart had suffered from serious mental health issues and had a depressive disorder.

Judge Flewitt said he would ignore a conviction in September 2012 for racially or religiously aggravated common assault “save to observe that, even during a period when you claim to have turned your life around, you still committed a further criminal offence”.

He said Mrs Stewart sent a letter about him becoming “an attentive and devoted husband and father” but could not overlook his criminal past. He said he agreed with the author of a pre-sentence report that: “The remorse he demonstrated appeared to be for the consequences of being discovered.”

Stewart was cleared of two charges of assaulting his wife last year, after the mum-of-three refused to support the prosecution. Mrs Stewart initially made a statement against her husband but later withdrew the allegations and refused to attend court.


9 Jan 2017

Benefit fraud councillor hasn't resigned yet

A shamed parish councillor, who was convicted last month after falsely claiming tax benefit, was noticeably absent from the first council meeting of the new year.

Alex Slater, who sits on Hazlemere Parish Council (HPC), did not attend the full council meeting on Tuesday evening, and councillors commented on his absence from other meetings he was expected to attend as a member.

The former Wycombe District councillor falsely claimed more than £1,500 in council tax reduction benefit while he was a member of WDC, after failing to declare that tenants were living in his Hazlemere home, in Holmoak Walk, between 2013 and 2015.

Slater – who now lives in Aylesbury – has paid back the amount he claimed.

Slater told the Bucks Free Press he was “genuinely sorry” and would be taking some time off to consider his position on HPC – a decision that, councillors said at the meeting, the council had not made aware of.

At the meeting, cllr Judy Weaver was temporarily asked to take over from Slater as the council representative for Chepping’s Local Access Forum (LAF) and it was decided that whichever councillors were able to, would attend meetings of the Wycombe Association of Local Councils (WDALC) on Slater’s behalf, since he is the Hazlemere Parish Council representative for WDALC.

Slater added if members of HPC were to take a vote of no confidence against him he would “happily accept the result”.

He was sentenced to a 12 month community order with 140 hours unpaid work, and instructed to pay costs of £1,175 on December 14.

5 Jan 2017

Black Country benefit fraud

Over £6.5 million worth of benefit fraud was uncovered in the Black Country and South Staffordshire by Department of Work and Pension(DWP) investigators in 2016.

And that did not include minor fiddles, each involving £2,000 or less, which are estimated to have added millions more to the total value of the blitz.

Cases handled by DWP investigators resulted in 182 successful prosecutions while there were also 104 administrative penalties issued.

These allow those involved in frauds of less than £5,000 to avoid going to court by paying back the stolen benefit money with a surcharge of up to half that amount added to the repayment figure.

Almost 1,500 people living in the area were investigated.

So a very low proportion led to penalties.

Officials are also doing more than ever with Proceeds of Crime legislation to claw back the money pocketed by cheats.

People like 67-year-old trickster Thomas Wilkinson from Bournes Hill, Halesowen, who pocketed benefits by claiming to be unable to walk very far as a result of osteoarthritis – while appearing on stage throughout the country at £250-a-time in a Blues Brothers tribute act for seven years before the racket was uncovered. He was given an eight-month prison sentence suspended for two years and was then ordered to repay almost £22,000 within three months or be locked up for seven months.

Scheming mother of two Wendy Robinson, 52, admitted a near £100,000 ten year benefits theft and received an 18 month jail sentence suspended for two years because of her ill health after she appeared at Birmingham Crown Court in a wheelchair. She was among those caught out by a specialist surveillance team recently added to the DWP investigations team in Central England.

Another was 72-year-old conman Paramjit Randhawa, from Goldthorn Park, who pocketed disability living allowance while claiming to be scarcely able to walk 10 metres until pictured striding along a treadmill for 50 minutes during a keep fit session that also included squat thrusts and leg raises, at a gym in Bentley Bridge. He was given eight months in prison suspended for 18 months and later ordered to repay more than £20,000.

There are three DWP offices in the Black Country, where almost £5.2 million frauds were uncovered and one in South Staffordshire where over £1.6 million worth of scams were uncovered.


Terrorist benefit fraud?

Berlin police have detained a Tunisian man suspected of eating dinner with Anis Amri the night before he drove a lorry into a crowded Christmas market.

Twelve people died in the 19 December attack. Amri fled to Italy and was shot dead by police in Milan.

Investigators believe Bilel A, aged 26, was either involved in planning the attack or at least knew about it.

Police say they have arrested him on suspicion of benefit fraud as they do not have enough evidence against him.


4 Jan 2017

Recidivist benefit thief jailed

A serial benefits cheat who enjoyed holidays in Spain and Egypt has been jailed for a year after she was caught defrauding the public purse out of nearly £35,000.

It was the third time Hull mother-of-two Amanda White, 50, had fraudulently claimed benefits.

White, who failed to declare she was living with her partner, was overpaid £34,773.68 in tax credits between May 22, 2008, and January 1, last year.

During that time, White – who earned £850 a month for a 30-hour week as a cleaner – took holidays in Majorca in 2014, and Egypt the following year, Hull Crown Court heard.

She had a previous conviction for making a false statement to claim benefits in 1996, and was ordered to do 200 hours unpaid work in 2005 for making a dishonest representation to obtain benefits.

She admitted benefit fraud.

Jailing her for a year, Judge Simon Jack told her: "I'm told in the pre-sentence report that you struggle to identify the victims of your offending. Well let me make it perfectly clear; the victims of anybody who fraudulently obtains benefits are every single hard-working tax payer in this country. The people who work hard and pay their taxes, and they expect their taxes to go on running essential services, like the NHS. People like you who receive benefits to which you are not entitled reduces the amount of money which is available to run essential services – the law-abiding members of society are the victims of your offending."

Claire Holmes, prosecuting, said the Department for Work and Pensions became aware of White's circumstances because she had been listed as her partner's emergency contact with his employers since 2004, and was also the person identified to receive any death benefits "should he die in service". The couple had also held a joint HSBC bank account since 1997, which described them as living together. They described themselves as partners and gave the same address when making a voluntary arrangement with a finance company in 2011, Miss Holmes said.

White said she had a "sporadic" relationship with her partner, who worked away as a seaman.

David Godfrey, for White, said of her partner: "He didn't always return to the family home. There was some suspicion he had another family somewhere. Her financial circumstances are in a mess, and that's always been the root cause of her difficulties. She finds it difficult to manage her finances; there are numerous county court judgements against her. She is a woman who has made a grave error of judgement, again."

White sobbed as she was led away to the cells.


2 Jan 2017

Happy new year to benefit fraud readers

The Mail reveals what it claims are the most bizarre benefit frauds of 2016

But what's most interesting is its account of the national benefits totals.
A record £1 billion was recovered from thousands of offenders who were brought to justice for wrongly claiming welfare over the last 12 months.

The Government pays out a whopping £172 billion in benefits to around 20 million people every year.
It reports there were 5,000 convictions of benefit fraudsters over the last year, which is a nice round number.

This represents tinkering with the problem, as we will continue to report.

Happy new year to our readers.

31 Dec 2016

Voluntary unemployment in the UK

Andrew Dunn presents research which finds that many unemployed people prefer living on benefits to undertaking jobs which would increase their income, but which they consider unattractive.

There is of course the additional problem of declared underemployment - to remain within the embrace of benefits.

But governments like a quiet life, so they prefer to let these sleeping dogs lie. If they wanted to know more, they would only have to conduct a detailed pilot in a small area.

But it is more convenient for them not to know.

30 Dec 2016

Council fraud operation is self-financing

The corporate fraud investigation team of Argyll and Bute Council has recovered almost £80,000 in its first year.

It will now continue its anti-fraud activities on a permanent basis as it pays for itself.

The team – formed in October 2015 – is responsible for investigating revenue and benefit, council tax, non-domestic rates and other corporate fraud as well as acting as a single point of contact for ongoing housing benefit fraud investigations.

At the end of its first year of operation in September, the team had already detected £175,000 of fraud and successfully recovered almost half of that figure (£79,535) with work ongoing to recover the remainder of the outstanding money.

The council has now agreed that the two investigators – which have until now been temporary – should be made permanent posts on the basis of them being self-financing.

This will allow the team to continue to successfully investigate and detect those fraudulently claiming single person discount, evading empty dwelling double charge as well as fictitious tenancies and other fraud.

Councillor Dick Walsh, Leader of Argyll and Bute Council, said: “If our Corporate Fraud Investigations Team had not been in place a significant amount of fraud would have gone undetected and fraudulent activity would no doubt have carried on. Our small team is carrying out extremely important work and achieving great results. It has already proved its worth; it is self-financing and is helping to strengthen the council’s response to fraud.”

The team was formed following the transfer of the council’s housing benefit fraud team from the council to the Department of Works and National Pensions Single Fraud Investigation Team.


29 Dec 2016

Benefit thief to pay back £1

A woman who pocketed over £50,000 by claiming false benefits and targeting vulnerable people has been ordered to pay back a token amount of £1. (h/t Dave)

Maria Pridmore, 36, was jailed for three years in August after she admitted a string of frauds. They included obtaining more than £16,000 in housing benefit, council tax benefit and income support.

Pridmore, who was described in court as a "Walter Mitty" fraudster, also stole over £30,000 from four women.

She appeared by video-link at Lincoln Crown Court from Drake Hall prison in Staffordshire, where she is serving her sentence.

The court heard Pridmore, a former drug addict, benefited by £56,679 from her crimes but had no available assets which could be confiscated to pay back her victims. Judge Simon Hirst ruled that in the circumstances a nominal sum of £1 should be paid.

Pridmore made news in 2012 when she gave birth to a daughter after previously suffering 14 miscarriages, a stillbirth and the death of an infant son.

At her sentence hearing, the court heard the former nurse had been claiming to be a lone-parent with dependent children in order to get benefits, but at various times failed to declare she had moved or was living with her then partner as man and wife.

Pridmore also pocketed more than £30,000 from friends and two elderly women, and used the bank details of one of her victims to pay for a £60 taxi fare to attend a court hearing. She stole almost £8,000 from one victim, an 84-year-old vulnerable woman.

Pridmore, from Holbeach, Lincolnshire, previously admitted seven charges of benefit fraud between August 2010 and March 2013, 19 charges of fraud and theft between January 2013 and May 2016 and stealing her father's flat-packed kitchen in April 2015.