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30 Jul 2015

Nothing bad happens to £36k benefit thief

An obese grandmother in her forties who fraudulently pocketed £36,000 in benefits while travelling the globe with her civil partner was caught out when investigators found her holiday photographs on Facebook.

Cheryl Brooks, 45, was pictured stroking a leopard in Thailand, visiting the Sydney Opera House and singing karaoke in India as she and partner Margaret Brierley, 42, jetted to a number of exotic destinations.

But Brooks, from Stalybridge, Greater Manchester, had been swindling thousands of pounds in taxpayers' money by falsely claiming housing benefits, council tax benefits and employment support allowance.

Between 2010 and 2013, Brooks claimed she was scraping by on state benefits, living alone and single, when in fact she was in a civil partnership with Ms Brierley - with the couple marking the occasion with a lavish party for their family and friends.

Brooks had started a relationship with Ms Brierley, who became Mrs Brooks, a year after she started claiming the benefits. Ms Brierley moved into her home and continued working as a taxi driver, with Brooks maintaining the stance that she was living alone in three separate claims forms.

Over three years the couple raked in £36,166.81 in overpaid benefits while posting holiday snaps on Facebook of trips to Palma Nova in Spain, Australia, America - where she visited Elvis Presley's Graceland Home in Tennessee, and India.

The couple revisited Australia this year, also journeying to Thailand as part of their package tour, but this was after the fraud was discovered.

Brooks, who now lives on disability support allowance after quitting her own job as a taxi driver in 2009, and Ms Brierley, who is currently receiving sick pay from her minicab firm, were pictured stroking leopards in Thailand just four months ago.

Brooks admitted failing to declare a change in her circumstances but her eight month prison sentence was suspended for two years when she appeared at at Minshull Street Crown Court in Manchester.

She was also ordered to pay prosecution costs of £2,308 - which will be taken from her Disability Living Allowance and Working Tax Credit.

But after she was spared jail she took to Facebook to tell friends she could now plan a 'get out of jail free party'.

In a status update to her page, she said: 'Well for once things went well for me and I'm still here taking my bag home with me thank you for all the good wishes I've had and everyone's support.' And then in reply to wishes of goodwill, she added: 'Just got to wait for good weather for my get out of jail free party lol.'

Brooks's con was only rumbled in August 2013 when anti-fraud initiative investigators became suspicious and came across her Facebook page where they discovered the catalogue of holiday snaps from far-flung destinations.

Prosecuting on behalf of Tameside Metropolitan Borough Council, Dean Hulse said: 'The Facebook account demonstrated they had been on a number of holidays together during the claim period. Palma Nova in 2011, India in 2012, Australia and the USA in 2013. This represented a lavish lifestyle beyond the means of a person who was single with dependent children whose sole income was state benefits.'

The court heard Brooks made her initial claim for benefits in September 2009 but it became fraudulent in September 2010 when Ms Brierley moved into her home.

In October 2010, November 2010 and September of the following year, Brooks made claims for benefits masquerading as a single woman with no income, when in fact she was living with her partner who was working full-time.

The DWP and local authority were first tipped off by the anti-fraud initiative in August 2013 that a taxi license was registered to Brooks's address, which led to an investigation to see whether she was actually living with Ms Brierley.

Officers found Brooks's Facebook account which showed the pair had entered into a civil partnership in November 2012, the court heard.

Having previously told the DWP that she only had one bank account, it soon transpired that Brooks in fact had five, with two in the joint names of herself and Ms Brierley.

Mr Hulse said: 'This reflects the calculation that has gone into this by the defendant to conceal evidence she was living with another person. There was information provided to the local authority by the anti-fraud initiative which suggested there was a taxi licence at the address. The local authority administer these, so they reviewed their records and saw the address given by Brierley was the defendant's address. For the offence period, the defendant was living with Brierley. It is the taxpayer who suffers. Particularly in times when public funds are scarce it could be considered more unacceptable to be committing this type of offence.'

Mitigating for Brooks, who had no previous convictions, Mark Harper said she had always accepted her misconduct. 'It was not fraudulent from the outset but in 2010 she became involved in a relationship with Mrs Brierley who she already knew and they maintained a common household and that was not declared,' he said.

But on sentencing Brooks, Judge Stuart Driver QC told her: 'Over three years you dishonestly obtained £36,000 of public money. I don't believe everything you said to probation. I think you had a good lifestyle out of that and funded luxurious foreign travel. You had a number of bank accounts and although it wasn't fraud from the start, it quickly became so. You have health problems and I give you full credit for your plea.'

Source with holiday snaps

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The alert came almost two years ago, by the way.

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