14 Jun 2016

Light sentence for wife - but now couple lose their home sale proceeds

A crime couple from Bromley have lost their family home after being ordered to pay almost half a million pounds earned from drug dealing and benefit fraud.

Matthew Harrod, 43, was sentenced to 10 years in prison in February 2014 after pleading guilty to being concerned in the supply of drugs.

His wife Fiona Kelly, 45, was given an 18-month sentence suspended for two years and ordered to do 140 hours of unpaid work after pleading guilty to benefit fraud totalling £60,000 and money laundering.

Over two years since their conviction, a judge at Kingston Crown Court made proceeds of crime act confiscation orders last Thursday, forcing the couple to repay £490,667.

The orders included £362,000 left over from the sale of their former home in Hayes Lane, as well as £107,000 from bank accounts, a car and £3,500 cash which was seized from the flat where Harrod was arrested.

Officers from the National Crime Agency (NCA) carried out a financial investigation to identify the profits the couple made from their criminal activities, taking out restraint orders for assets such as bank accounts and their luxury home.

NCA branch commander Oliver Higgins said: “Harrod and his wife made hundreds of thousands of pounds from their criminality and were able to enjoy a lavish lifestyle as a result. The NCA will use all its powers to pursue not just the criminals themselves but the money they make from their offending.”


13 Jun 2016

No jail for £55k benefits thief

Linda Davis, formerly of Bainbridge Green, Harlescott Grange, but now living in Blackpool, was found guilty at an earlier hearing of three charges of fraud, making claims for benefits, and income support she was not entitled to between 2008 and 2014. (h/t Dave)

She had denied charges relating to income support claims between April 2008 and November 2012. She also denied being concerned in fraudulent activity between April 2009 and July 2014 to claim tax credits and two further charges of fraud from 2012.

At Shrewsbury Crown Court Judge Peter Barrie handed down a 10-month jail sentence suspended for 12 months. He also ordered that Davis carry out 100 hours of unpaid work.

Mr Marc Davies, prosecuting, said the 44-year-old, failed to declare that she had been living with her husband Stuart Birrel. The claims were made on the basis she was a single parent, the court was told.

At an earlier hearing the court was told that Davis notified the authorities in 2012 that she would be starting work, sparking an investigation by Shropshire Council and the Department for Work and Pensions into her past benefit claims.

Davis had claimed Mr Birrel moved out in 2008 but investigators found the couple had booked a joint holiday in 2011 and Mr Birrel had taken out car insurance, telling the company the car would be parked at Davis’s address. He said Mr Birrel also had bank accounts connected to the same address and in 2011 the pair had a child together.

The trial heard that when she was interviewed, Davis told investigators that after separating from Mr Birrel he had moved to Suffolk but still visited to see his children. She also accused Mr Birrel of having a gambling addiction and said he had continued to link himself to her address because there were “too many debt collectors after him”.

On Wednesday Miss Davis told the jury Mr Birrel would often be at the family home – but only to look after the children while she visited family in Lincolnshire.

At the sentencing hearing Mr Myles Wilson, for Davies, said she had four children and found herself having to provide for them alone. “She was at breaking point,” he said. She had been humiliated by the trial and had moved to Blackpool.

Judge Barrie said he had decided to suspend the sentence because of the financial difficulties that Mr Birrel had imposed on her.


10 Jun 2016

Success of the council’s housing fraud investigator

A housing fraud investigator was appointed in January and since then has had a real impact on tenancy fraud in the district, according to Arun District Council.

The role of housing fraud investigator is to check applications to join the housing register to see if they are genuine, conduct unannounced visits to tenants suspected of subletting property, and carry out court-approved surveillance.

A council spokesman said:
When appointed in January the aim was for up to ten properties in the Arun district to be brought back into lawful use over a 12 month period.

Five months on and already nine properties have been recovered. A number of factors have contributed to this result: properties where the tenant was no longer in residence; subletting; alleged housing benefit fraud or single occupancy discount claims from Council Tax.

We have also prevented two fraudulent applications to the Arun housing register and a fraudulent Right to Buy application.
Councillor Trevor Bence, cabinet member for housing at Arun District Council, said, “I am delighted to see the success of this vital role in action and the positive effect it is having. Social housing is a scarce resource, and homelessness is increasing. Therefore every property we get back from fraudulent use will be allocated to a household in acute housing need from the Arun housing register.

“Arun District Council welcomes help from the public in reporting housing fraud. You might know somebody who has a home that the Council doesn’t know about or has given false information in their housing application. You might suspect someone of housing fraud having seen them collect rent from neighbours or be suspicious because the tenants of a property are changing frequently.

“You can see what is going on in your neighbourhood and if any of these signs strike a chord, please let the housing fraud team know.”


8 Jun 2016

Lincolnshire councils reclaim over £600k council tax discounts

Hundreds of thousands of pounds of public money have been recovered by Lincolnshire councils from people who have continued to get single person discount on their council tax when not entitled to it. (h/t Dave)

A review was carried out of more than 100,000 households to see if people claiming the 25% single person discount were genuinely living on their own.

A total of 2,229 discounts were taken away and individuals have had to pay back any discount that they were not entitled to.

Enforcement action has been taken against 543 people as they have either failed to respond or have provided misleading information. In all, £611,000 was recovered.

Councillor Aaron Spencer, Boston Borough Council's finance portfolio holder, said: "This type of exercise is part of our fraud prevention measures which all Lincolnshire councils take very seriously. We do investigate and take appropriate action against people claiming council tax discount and exemptions that they are not entitled to. Every pound lost this way increases national and local taxation levels and also threatens essential services.

"£611,000 is a significant amount of money that is successfully being reclaimed - we will not tolerate those who potentially seek to defraud local taxpayers. In Boston borough £61,000 has been reclaimed, 255 claimants have been removed and 98 penalties totalling £7,000 have been issued.

"We are obliged to amend any records we find to be incorrect back to the date of the change. This means householders do not benefit from withholding information from us and it makes the system fairer for everyone. If you don't tell us it could mean some households will find they have a considerable amount of council tax arrears to pay."


6 Jun 2016

Nigerian benefit thief escapes jail for second offence

A Nigerian illegal immigrant has avoided jail despite falsely claiming £50,000 in benefits to pay off the people smugglers who got her into Britain. (h/t Dave)

Linda Okungowa, 36, of Sheffield, who arrived in the UK on a false passport 12 years ago, claimed the money in destitution and child benefits despite working under false identities.

But the mother-of-three received a suspended sentence in an ‘amazing display of mercy’ after it emerged she had support from a church which was protecting her from committing more crime. The decision by Judge Simon Lawler QC came five years after Okungowa was sent to prison for eight months for using false documents to obtain work while claiming £70,000 in benefits.

Okungowa arrived in Britain believing she would be able to train as a doctor, but instead became entrenched in a mounting debt cycle with the traffickers who helped her get in. She said the smugglers kept increasing the amount they said she owed them and she was left so destitute her children were forced to walk 12 miles a day to school in Sheffield because the family could not afford the bus fare. Okungowa also ended up working multiple jobs in a bid to keep up with the repayments.

12 Miles a day twice a day? I doubt it!

Neil Coxon, prosecuting, said that after getting out of prison in 2011, she took on the identity of a friend in London while applying for work.

After getting several jobs in the care sector she asked the woman if the wages could be paid into her bank account and transferred to Okungowa. Mr Coxon said Okungowa told the woman she could not be paid directly due to debts associated with her account.

Between July 2011 and August 2014, Okungowa had claimed £22,610 in destitution benefits, and £26,201 in child tax credits and working tax credits between June 2011 and January 2015.

At Sheffield Crown Court, Judge Lawler said the exceptional circumstances of the case meant he wouldn’t be sending her straight to prison. He added: ‘I may be criticised because fraud from the public purse is common and everybody in this court knows usually the offender goes immediately to custody. But in this particular case I can see no useful purpose to the public in sending you to custody. I hope you repay the trust the court has placed in you.’

Okungowa, who has three children aged one, nine and 11, said after the case: ‘I’m not proud of the things I have done but I have been given a chance.’

She's had all her children after coming to the UK.

An investigation will now be carried out into Okungowa’s finances to see if she can pay any of the money back. She received an 18-month prison sentence suspended for two years.

Ben Hudd, the minister at The Ark church in Sheffield, which supported her, said: ‘It was a balance between justice and mercy. We saw an amazing display of mercy. Although justice was done with the sentence, the judge had mercy on Linda because of all the things she has dealt with in her life. It was the perfect way forward.’


3 Jun 2016

Recidivist benefit thief jailed on her 52nd birthday

A mother who cheated the state out of more than £73,000 during 12 years of benefit frauds was jailed for eight months at Gloucester Crown Court on Tuesday - her 52nd birthday.

It was the second time Deborah McMullen, from Tredworth, had defrauded the benefits system - in 2008 she had been fined for obtaining £11,000 she was not entitled to, the court heard.

She pleaded guilty to eight charges of cheating the Department of Works and Pensions and Gloucester City Council out of income support, council tax and housing benefits between March 2002 and May 2014.

Recorder Shamin Qureshi said he was unable to suspend her sentence because of the amount involved and also because of the aggravating feature that she had a previous conviction for similar offences.

Prosecutor George Threlfall said what made her claims false was that she told the DWP and council that she was a single woman with one daughter and no-one else living at home. In fact, he said, her husband Andrew was resident with her and was working for much of the time she was making the claims.

"She claimed it was just her and her daughter or herself alone," he said. "She failed to declare that her husband who was in full time employment was also living in the property."

When investigators questioned her on May 30 2014 she was "not frank" and denied she had done anything wrong, Mr Threlfall said. Her husband was interviewed on June 17 that year and he was "spinning the same sort of tale", he added.

Calculations in due course showed she had been overpaid £43,283 housing benefit, £6,613 council tax benefit, £16,303 income support and £7,479 Job Seekers Allowance.

Sarah Jenkins, defending, said she had committed the offences because although her husband was with her and sometimes earning he was a Class A drug addict and spent his money on servicing his addiction rather than giving it to her to meet household expenses.

He was now disabled and she was his principal carer, added Mrs Jenkins. His mother is also disabled and partly reliant on her, she said. "She says her life during this period has been miserable and stressful," said the solicitor, who added that there was no suggestion she had been living a lavish lifestyle.

Jailing McMullen, Recorder Qureshi told her: "It is always sad to deal with anyone on their birthday. But you will have been advised that in view of the large amount of money involved you are facing a custodial sentence. You appeared in court for similar matters in 2008 and clearly you did not learn your lesson because you carried on offending after that time."

He passed sentences totalling eight months jail.

Councillor David Norman, cabinet member for performance and resources at Gloucester City Council, said: "The city council takes fraud very seriously and we will always take on anyone we suspect of falsely claiming money they're not entitled to. In this case, the sentence fits the seriousness of the crime and I hope this acts as a deterrent to others who may be thinking of committing benefit fraud."


The offences she has now admitted date from 2002. Her previous conviction was in 2008, so evidently some benefit fraud went undetected at that time.

2 Jun 2016

Illegal sub-letter to pay back £11,000

A housing association tenant who planted family photos around his flat to fool investigators while illegally subletting it has been handed a suspended prison sentence.

Franck Guei, 29, insisted he was still living at the one-bedroom flat in Ashburnham Court, Bedford, but was actually charging a work colleague £430 a month to live there.

He pleaded guilty at an earlier hearing to subletting the Bedford Pilgrims Housing Association (BPHA) property, and was sentenced to 18 weeks in prison, suspended for two years, at Luton Magistrate's Court on May 19.

He was also ordered to complete 180 hours unpaid work and pay back £11,310 of the unlawful profits and legal costs.

The court heard how an investigation by Bedford Borough Council's investigation team and BPHA discovered evidence Guei moved out of his flat and was living with his ex-partner. But he maintained he and his family were living there, and even went to the lengths of planting family photographs and leaving personal possessions behind to convince investigators of his lies. He also claimed the locks had been changed without his knowledge.

Guei has now voluntarily ended his tenancy and returned the keys to this property.

Cllr Michael Headley, portfolio holder for finance at Bedford Borough Council, said: "Anyone subletting a housing association property is depriving a family in need of a home. By investigating these matters the council is able to make more properties available to provide safe and secure homes for those most in need. The council will not stand for abuse and fraud and will take action against those found to be subletting or lying to obtain properties."


Social housing fraud is the most wicked form of welfare fraud. The sums that can be saved are huge, but it's so much more than the money - needy families are being deprived of the chance to have a settled home that meets their needs.

1 Jun 2016

£140k benefit cheat gets away with it

A terrible example. The case took ages to come to court, and then ... effectively nothing.

A benefits cheat mother-of-four who swindled taxpayers out of £140,000 has avoided jail and will be allowed to pay it back over 27 years.

Zoe Phoenix, 41, claimed handouts for nine years based on her being an unemployed single mother - but she failed to declare that her partner Peter Sims, 50, had moved in with her.

The beautician from Manchester, who has four children aged ten, 16, 20 and 23, was fraudulently claiming housing benefit and income support as well housing tax support.

She fraudulently claimed £144,364.69 from 2005 to 2014, but walked free from court with a 12-month suspended sentence and a requirement to do 200 hours of unpaid work.

Phoenix admitted three counts of dishonestly failing to notify of a change in circumstance but she said she was now working as a beautician and was paying back around £100 a week. She was overpaid so much that it will take her more than 27 years to pay it back at her current rate - without counting any potential interest.

An investigation found that her partner Mr Sims had been seen taking the children to school, carrying groceries into the house and a car registered in his name was outside regularly. Her social media accounts contained dozens of photographs of her enjoying the high life on nights out and posing in revealing dresses.

Richard Littler, prosecuting, told Manchester Crown Court: ‘Zoe Phoenix claimed benefits as a single parent from March 16, 2000 to 2014. She claimed for four, three and two dependent children and made the claim on the basis that she was single and had no other income apart from child benefits and tax credits. The money was transferred into a bank account. She was sent letters reminding her to notify of any change of circumstances. She had lived with her partner, Peter Sims, from at least July 2005 until the case was closed in July 2014.

‘On January 14, 2008 and January 23, 2009 visits were made to her address to check her circumstances were unchanged and she remained an unemployed single parent. By her own admissions she was already living with her partner but didn’t declare this at the time. In July 2014 she was asked whether she understood the roles and factors that might affect them (benefits) and she demonstrated a clear understanding.

‘She admitted that Peter Sims had lived with her since July 2005, the date shown on Mr Sims’ bank details. Her son was born later that year, the second child of a relationship with Peter Sims.

A period of surveillance was carried out in 2013 and during that period he was seen to enter and leave on at least 49 occasions, driving the children to school and carrying groceries into the house so it would appear that he was clearly a resident at that address. Two vehicles were also routinely parked outside, one which was registered to Mr Sims.’

The surveillance was over-long and therefore dearer than it need have been. And it still took them years to get the case to court.

What was enforcement doing?

The court heard Phoenix was not fraudulently receiving the money from the outset of her claiming history because when she first begun receiving state handouts, she was doing so legitimately.

Alex Langhorn, defending, said Mr Sims was living at the house but not financially contributing. He added: ‘The reality of the situation is that this is a woman who, having claimed benefits, buried her head in the sand and thought this was the way to deal with things. She has four children who are ten, 16, 20 and 23. They were far younger when this started. When Mr Sims would come and go he would not provide anything for them. He was present in the physical sense. He occasionally helped out with the utilities but that was the extent. This is a lack of consequential thinking rather than an attempt to defraud the state.'

Mr Sims said she had expected an immediate jail term and that her mother, father and eldest daughter were going to have supported her younger children should this have happened.

Sentencing her, Judge Andrew Jefferies QC, said: ‘You’re now 41 years of age and a woman of good character [actually a long term thief] who for the last ten years has been receiving income support, council tax and housing benefits. Your circumstances changed and you didn’t notify the relevant authorities. It’s the people that do this that give the people that need benefits a bad name.

‘The amount of the claim is a little short of £150,000 over a ten-year period but recently you have started to pay back those benefits and I’m impressed that’s something you have done before coming here today. You have four children, three of which you are still responsible for. I’m persuaded that this is a case I can suspend.'


27 May 2016

Illegal sub-letting featured in TV series

A crackdown on social housing residents in Aylesbury Vale who commit tenancy fraud is being featured in a BBC series.

Council House Crackdown highlights the growing problem of housing fraud around the country – the most common types being unlawful subletting, obtaining housing by deception and wrongly claimed succession.

There can be serious consequences, as those found guilty of fraud may receive a large fine, or in some cases, a prison sentence, and the perpetrator may also be required to pay back any money they gained.

The Vale of Aylesbury Housing Trust’s investigators appear in the series alongside their counterparts from around the UK.

The trust said they are often alerted to a possible fraud via an associated complaint, for example reports of anti-social behaviour.

Following an amnesty in October 2015, when people using their tenancy inappropriately had the opportunity to hand their keys in and no further action would be taken, the trust said it has taken a ‘hard line’ on possible fraud.

There have been a ‘number of investigations that have resulted in regaining possession of the property and reallocating it to a family in housing need’.

Masaud Subedar, head of community services added: “Social housing is a valuable resource and there is a chronic shortage of affordable homes both in the Vale and nationally. We have adopted a zero tolerance approach and we are committed to tackling fraud. Our investigators do an excellent job of identifying potential cases and piecing together the evidence available to them to enable us to recover the property and reallocate it to a family in housing need. I am delighted we have been able to work with the team on Council House Crackdown to show this serious issue. It has helped us send a strong message to people who misuse their tenancy.”

Council House Crackdown runs on BBC One from 9.15am, each morning until Friday 3 June.


26 May 2016

Tenancy fraudster must pay £130,000

A council tenant has been ordered to pay Barnet Council almost £130,000 after illegally subletting his council home for 16 years.

David Lawal, 56, of Clifton Gardens, Uxbridge, pleaded guilty to five charges of obtaining services by deception and sub-letting a property following an investigation by the council’s Corporate Anti-Fraud Team (CAFT).

Harrow Crown Court heard how Lawal and his family had presented themselves as homeless to the council in 1994 and were offered a two bedroom property in Kingsbury Road, Colindale. But as the investigation later revealed, Lawal failed to declare that he in fact owned three other homes.

A council spokesman said: “Lawal did not give up his tenancy on the council house in Kingsbury Road and instead sublet it to various tenants over the years until finally handing back the keys in October 2014. In 2005 Lawal even contacted the council to say the council property in Colindale was too small for him and his family and requested a larger property. When investigators called at the Colindale house they found subtenants living in the property and that the lounge had been partitioned to provide further accommodation.”

Lawal was sentenced on May 12 when he was handed a 14-month suspended sentence, ordered to carry out 180 hours of unpaid work, pay a compensation order of £127,000, pay costs of more than £20,000 and a victim surcharge of £100. The £127,000 compensation order was calculated on the basis of how much it would have cost the council to house a family of four in temporary accommodation over the period the illegal subletting took place.

Lawal now has six months in which to pay the money to the council.

Councillor Richard Cornelius, Leader of Barnet Council, said: “Council homes are there for those in genuine need so it’s totally unacceptable for someone to abuse the system in such a brazen fashion as this, and over such a long period of time. Not only was this council house sublet but its tenant was the owner of three properties. This case, and the size of the compensation order which must be paid, sends out a very clear message to anyone who might be contemplating something similar.”


Illegal sub-letting of social housing is a wicked crime. It's not just the (considerable amount of) money - people and families who need a home are being deprived of it.