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27 Apr 2013

DWP employee in position of trust ran £91k benefits fraud

A corrupt benefits clerk who masterminded a £91,000 welfare fraud in which vital winter fuel payments were deliberately diverted away from hard up pensioners has been jailed. (h/t Dave)

Vajid Ashraf, 34, was the 'lynchpin' behind a scam in which money needed to keep pensioners warm was siphoned off and instead sent to the bank accounts of his relatives and friends.

Under the noses of colleagues at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) office in Simonstone, Lancashire, Ashraf targeted accounts where he knew he could get the most money.

He also rigged the computer to ensure electronically generated letters were not sent to those who should have received the handouts.

Twenty four struggling pensioners across Britain were denied Pension Credit, Winter Fuel Payment and Cold Weather Payments during the nine-month fraud.

The money was instead withdrawn by Ashraf's team of nine accomplices and shared out - with half going back to him.

The scam was uncovered after concerns about the bank account of an 80-year old woman who lived in a council run care home in Bedfordshire.

All the pensioners eventually received their payments totalling £91,344.69 from the DWP at the further expense of the taxpayer.

At Preston Crown Court, father-of-one Ashraf, from Burnley, admitted conspiracy to defraud and was jailed for three years and seven months.

Judge Robert Altham told him:
You were a cynical and ruthless fraudster. These people were vulnerable and lost their entitlements for a period of time and no doubt they suffered stress and anxiety. The conspiracy was detected and was stopped but clearly further monies would have been defrauded if not detected. Vulnerable people were targeted, it was highly planned and carefully executed. You didn't stop at your own accord, you were stopped.
Earlier the court heard how Ashraf, who worked for the DWP for nine years, began his scam in September 2010 after he was given access to the departmental computer system for administrating payments to pensioners.

The winter fuel allowance was worth £250 for over 65s and £400 for over 80s at the time and cold weather payments are fixed at £25 per week.

But Ashraf recruited two lieutenants to pay £50 a time to others to provide their bank account details and amongst the accomplices were at least five young women from Leeds, Stoke, Birmingham and Manchester to receive Pension Credit payments.

Mr Kevin Slack prosecuting said: 'The defendant exercised some care in choosing which pensioners' accounts to target so as to maximise the gain to himself and minimise the risk of detection.'

He said Ashraf targeted OAPs whose payments had been temporarily suspended following the closure of their bank accounts. He imputted the account details of his own accomplices instead and restored the weekly payments.

Mr Slack added:
The previous suspension meant that the arrears of weekly payments had accumulated so that when he released that suspension and input the details of the new bank account into which the payments were to be made a large lump sum would typically be paid out. It would then be followed by ongoing weekly payment in much smaller amounts. The defendant was able to divert more money than would have been the case if ongoing weekly payments were redirected. The fact that payments had been suspended may have given the defendant reason to hope that there was a greater prospect of the payments being diverted to another account without the original pensioner noticing the absence of payments. In all cases the defendant ensured that the computer system was overridden to prevent from being issued the letter that would be generated and sent to the pensioner informing them that their bank account details had been amended. In 21 of the 24 cases it was the defendant who made the relevant entries, lifting the suspension, inputting new bank account details and suppressing the notification letters.
The fraud emerged in June 2011 after an official at Bedfordshire County Council which had been appointed as carer for 80-year-old pensioner Annie Coggins noticed her payments had been suspended in early 2010.

It emerged one of Ashraf's cousin's Zaheer Uddin was a 'key link' in the scam providing bank details for his wife, mother in law, two relatives of his wife and two other family friends.

The stolen money would be paid into the accounts and the recipient would typically get to keep up to half - with the rest being collected by Ashraf. Uddin himself received £51,606.48 into his account.

In mitigation for Ashraf who has three previous convictions including an offence of dangerous driving (well done, DWP, for putting him a position of trust), defence lawyer Mark Stephenson said his client had been short of money.

Mr Stephenson added:
He had worked at the department for nine years and had a position of responsibility, one must have to presume that he did his job well up to then. He says he got himself in a hole, he found an opportunity and he took advantage of it. He fell and he fell hard and he got himself in to a situation that snowballed.
Uddin, 28, of Blackburn admitted conspiracy to defraud and was jailed for two years.

Shakeel Butt, 28 also of Blackburn, was convicted of conspiracy and jailed for three years and four months.

Sanaa Khan, 24, of Chorlton, Manchester, admitted to converting criminal property by making payments of £1,951 to a Natwest bank account and was given six weeks jail suspended for two years and ordered to complete 100 hours unpaid work.

Sima Khan, 27, of Moseley, Birmingham, admitted a similar offence, relating to £5,429 and a Lloyds TSB account and was given a 12 month community order with 12 months supervision and 50 hours unpaid work.

Sanaa Khan's husband Darrell Aldore, 24, received 12 months jail whilst Haseena Dawood, 26, from Urmston, Manchester received a 12 week jail term suspended for two years with 150 hours unpaid work.

Wayne Pecco, 31, from Stoke, was given 10 weeks suspended for two years and 120 hours unpaid work. Sentencing upon two other women was adjourned.

After the case a DWP spokesman said: 'We take internal and external fraud extremely seriously. It is looked into by professionally trained investigators and those caught are subject to disciplinary action, police are informed and we will prosecute.'

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