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10 Sep 2014

£232k "was easy money" for benefit fraudster

A benefits cheat has been jailed for stealing two dead friends' identities in a 17-year 'campaign of deception' which netted him £232,000.

Paul Burnett, 45, set up alter egos as 'tenants' in a string of houses he had bought - then claimed incapacity, housing and council tax benefit, jobseekers' allowance and income support in their names.

His sophisticated swindle, which included posing as one friend who died in a 1988 motorcycle crash and another who drowned in 1996, was only discovered when one of his living victims returned from Australia.

By the time he was caught, Burnett was having to keep 16 diaries to organise his life as a 'full-time fraudster', Bradford Crown Court heard.

When Department of Work and Pensions investigators finally caught up with him, he confessed:
It was easy money. It started off because I was skint but then it turned into a game.
The court heard Burnett claimed benefits using his own name and those of four other men between 1996 and 2013.

The first, Michael Gilmartin, was a friend who had died in a motorcycle crash in Leeds in 1988. Posing under the fake name, Burnett bought a house in Halifax, West Yorkshire, and took on a tenant by the name of Ian Wright. But 'Ian Wright' was actually Burnett under a second fake name - and he claimed £61,174 in incapacity benefit, housing benefit of £35,629 and council tax benefit of £6,487 from Calderdale Council.

To claim the incapacity benefit, which has since been phased out by the government, Burnett had to obtain an NHS card for 'Ian Wright' and complain he was unfit to work due to depression. The court heard how 'Ian Wright' - whose real-life double had in fact left Britain to live in Australia - was prescribed Prozac, declared unfit to work and even referred to a counsellor.

Burnett's third identity was Michael Wells, a friend who had drowned in Greece in 1996. He bought a house in Bradford, West Yorkshire, under Mr Wells' name and then pretended he was a tenant to claim a string of benefits. Burnett's claims had a deep effect on his dead friend's sister - who was offered a 'glimmer of hope' that he had not drowned after all, the court heard.

Burnett's fourth identity was Stephen Hackett, who was still alive but had moved to France following a family fight. As Stephen Hackett, Burnett again managed to obtain an NHS Medical Card and even a birth certificate. 'Stephen Hackett' then claimed £11,845 housing benefit, £2,501 council tax benefit, £9,271 jobseekers' allowance, £24,190 incapacity benefit and £16,476 of its successor, the employment and support allowance. He had a bank account with Cheltenham and Gloucester and - as with 'Ian Wright' - was signed off as unfit to work after telling doctors he had depression and suicidal thoughts.

Burnett was only discovered after the real Ian Wright returned home from Australia and found letters demanding money and claiming he had been receiving benefits. He contacted the authorities and police traced Burnett to the home where 'Stephen Hackett' was living in Tadcaster, North Yorkshire. Records showed Burnett - using his real name - had bought the house in cash for £70,000 and 'Stephen Hackett' was supposedly living there as a tenant.

But they found the 16 diaries which exposed the scale of the scam, linking him with the other properties in Halifax and Bradford. They also showed he had links to Keighley and Todmorden in West Yorkshire and Rochdale, Greater Manchester.

Burnett pleaded guilty to 20 separate counts of fraud and making false representations. Judge Jonathan Rose told Burnett he had seen the benefits system as 'a portal to riches':
Benefits and the benefits system are to help those in need, those unable to finance their lives without the support and assistance of the state. They are not there, in your own counsel's words, for those who are seduced by greed. You are a greedy man, Paul Burnett. Your case has a deeply unpleasant and deeply hurtful aspect of you stealing the identities of men who have lost their lives.
Stephen Wood, defending, said Burnett has an 18 year old daughter and told police he 'was seduced by greed'. 'He was encouraged by the ease with which these offences could be committed,' Mr Wood said. 'They didn't require special tools or special knowledge'.

And he was only discovered by chance.

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