24 Nov 2014

News of keys amnesties reaches Cornwall

We've written before about the results of keys amnesties in various parts of the country (click on the keys amnesty label at the end of this post). Word of them has now filtered through to Cornwall.

Cornwall Council is giving people commiting tenancy fraud in social housing the chance to hand in their house keys and walk away.

The authority says that Government statistics show the fraud is potentially on the increase, and that as many as 200 Cornwall Council and Cornwall Housing tenancies are affected, leaving those in genuine need of affordable housing out in the cold.

A council spokesman said; "In order to combat those increases a new law, The Prevention of Social Housing Fraud Act 2013, came into force in October 2013. This means that tenants committing tenancy fraud in social housing tenancies now risk criminal investigation and prosecution in addition to the risk of losing their tenancy and significant court costs.

"Tenancy fraud mainly occurs as a result of fraudulent applications for housing (waiting list and homelessness applications), fraudulent succession applications, unlawful sub-letting, key-selling, property abandonment, fraudulent “Right to Buy” applications and unauthorised assignments.

"Every property being used fraudulently stops another household in housing need from accessing that affordable housing.

"New homes cost on average well over £150,000 to build and the costs of housing homeless families in temporary accommodation can total up to £18,000 whilst they wait to access the accommodation they need, not to mention what the impacts of being homeless have on those households.

"Additionally there are over 28,000 households registered on Cornwall Homechoice all seeking an affordable home so it makes it even more important that those committing tenancy fraud do not get away with depriving other households out of the homes they need.

"Cornwall Housing and Cornwall Council have always worked hard to prevent tenancy fraud, but with new powers to help us deal with tenancy fraud we are even more determined to identify those tenants and deal with them accordingly.

"Cornwall Council and Cornwall Housing are working in partnership and have a specialist fraud team who will investigate any concerns or reports of tenancy fraud. We have already had recent successes where two properties have been returned to us without the need to pursue a full criminal investigation or to consider taking criminal proceedings.

"This provides the extra benefit of homes being returned quickly without protracted investigations and legal cases and without the additional burdens of high legal costs."

Cornwall Council and Cornwall Housing are running a 'Key Amnesty' from January 1, 2015 to February 28, 2015, allowing tenants who are committing tenancy fraud to end their tenancy, hand back their keys and avoid potential criminal investigation, prosecution proceedings and legal costs.

The spokesman added: "The amnesty is Cornwall Housing and Cornwall Council’s Corporate Fraud Team’s response to the change in the law that means tenants who illegally sublet homes can now face a prison sentence, criminal record and/or a fine of up to £5,000. Our amnesty is a chance for tenants to hand back the keys, avoid these penalties and to give a home to someone who really needs it.

"It also benefits other households in housing need as it means that potentially properties come back much quicker so are available to let sooner, and it means money is saved by avoiding what can be lengthy and expensive investigations and protracted court cases.

"Most of our information about possible tenancy fraud comes from other tenants who are concerned about not seeing their neighbour on a regular basis, or who don’t recognise the person living next to them.

"Reporting those concerns makes a real difference in finding and dealing with people who are abusing their tenancies.


21 Nov 2014

Jail for another "single" parent

A shameless fraudster who drove a luxury BMW while falsely claiming tens of thousands of pounds in benefits has been jailed.

Angella Brown, 45, told Croydon council she was homeless while sending her two children to private school during a 10-year scam.

She claimed £43,000 worth of housing and council tax benefits, as well as income support, without letting on that she was married to her landlord and owned her own home in Thornton Heath, south London.

Despite this, Brown was given council housing after telling officials she was homeless and was having to live in a friend's overcrowded house.

Sentencing her to twelve months in prison, Recorder Silas Reid told Brown she had deliberately and repeatedly set out to deceive Croydon Council.

She was motivated by greed and the trappings of a luxury lifestyle and had deprived another family of council housing, the Recorder added.

Simon Hall, Croydon Council's cabinet member for finance, said:
It is people like Brown who abuse the benefits system that give honest claimants a bad name. Her criminal lifestyle went on for 10 years, but this case goes to show that eventually, fraudsters will be caught and punished, and made to pay back the benefits they have illegally claimed.
Of course, Simon Hall is spouting nonsense. There is no certainty whatever that all offenders will be caught, and there is no certainty whatever that those who are caught will repay us.

I bet the council house she swindled out of the local authority wasn't standing empty, but we are not told about that.


20 Nov 2014

Record benefit fraud in Trafford

A Trafford councillor has welcomed a record number of benefits frauds detected in 2013/2014.

The latest fraud investigation service report, which prevents, deters, investigates and detects fraudulent benefit claims, says that £890,000 in overpayments were identified by the team.

Cllr Patrick Myers, the executive member for finance, says the figure beats all previous records, and thus proving the success in conducting more complex and in depth investigations, which identify higher levels of overpayments in many cases.

As a result Trafford Council is able to claim a subsidy of 40% on all overpayments at recovery, which providing full amounts are paid, would result in an additional income stream of £225,000 per annum.

Targets set earlier this year for the number of sanctions or prosecutions issued, were exceeded by 18% and the total amount recovered by 48%.

Cllr Myers added: "There is no issue to people claiming benefits to which they are entitled, but the council takes a dim view towards those who continue play the system."


Another slow benefit fraud case

A Margate mother of four wept as she was jailed for receiving nearly £55,000 in benefits illegally.

Emma Truscott, 36, failed to tell the authorities that for two years her lover was banking his £750-a-week wages in her account. But as Truscott was led away to begin an eight month jail sentence, Judge Adele Williams told her: “He is equally to blame really... if not legally then certainly morally."

Canterbury Crown Court heard how Truscott and Michael Wild – who was the father of three of her children – were cohabiting as she was claiming Child Tax Credits, Income Support as well as housing and council tax benefits from 2011 to April last year.

Undercover officials kept watch at their home and spotted his vehicle parked there each day.

In January 2012, Truscott was formally cautioned for failing to notify the authorities that she was also working while claiming benefits.

After her arrest she told officials that she and welder Mr Wild were separated but because of his “bad credit rating” had used her bank account. Kerry Waitt, defending, said Truscott didn’t know how stable her relationship was with her partner.

But Judge Williams retorted: “While I accept that is not unusual for women in her position... here his wages were being paid into her bank account. And once you start doing that, every conceivable alarm bell should be ringing and then when you are cautioned for failing to disclose you are also working... even more alarm bells should be ringing."

Truscott, who admitted four benefit fraud charges, began wringing her hands and crying as the judge told her the offences were too serious for her to avoid going to prison immediately.


19 Nov 2014

Slow benefit fraud investigation & light sentence

A shopping centre security guard pocketed £52,000 in benefits claiming he could barely walk while being praised for sprinting after shoplifters and even running karate classes.

Kevin Baker, 45, claimed he could not walk more than a few yards and was crippled with arthritis, even using a taxpayer-funded car, while working a 40-hour week patrolling stores at the Prospect Shopping Centre in Hull.

He was exposed when an investigator spotted him at the shopping centre, his bosses later telling officials they were pleased with Baker's work and that his martial arts background helped him to restrain thieves.

Baker was handed an 18-month prison sentence, suspended for two years, and ordered to carry out 200 hours of unpaid work after he admitted three charges of making false claims for incapacity benefit, disability living allowance and income support between 1995 and 2012.

He had begun claiming benefits in 1995 after complaining he was unable to walk more than 50 yards without experiencing severe pain following surgery to have two tumours removed.

'He said he was unable to work without severe discomfort,' Stephen Robinson, prosecuting, told Hull Crown Court. 'He said he could only walk 50 yards before experiencing severe pain. He said he suffered from arthritis. It allowed him the use of a mobility car from 2007 to 2012 which came from money he claimed. He regularly received letters saying he must not work. He claimed income support for himself, his wife and children from September 2008 to September 2012. He said he was unable to work.

'The evidence from managers was he was running around after people who were thieves. He worked five days a week - six to eight hours a day on his feet. He had 15 minute breaks, but would rarely take his full break. He was on his feet for five hours a day. It was a physical job protecting staff and customers and he played a full part in that.'

The court was told that Baker falsely claimed £28,490 in incapacity benefit, £17,068 in disability living allowance and £6,541 in income support.

When he was interviewed in August 2012 he said that when he first made the claim, he was not able to work, but was later able to take on more.

Baker said he did not like taking the money, but felt he had no choice but to work and claim. He said he knew he should not have been working.

When he first started claiming benefits, Baker had run a Karate class at a church hall in Greatfield, Hull.

He told his bosses about his martial arts background, but when questioned by benefits investigators claimed he had lied to his managers.

David Godfrey, mitigating, told the court that Baker had suffered from acromegaly in his late teens which affected his pituitary glands, causing swelling to the bone mass on his hands and joints, and had taken steroids to ease the pain. He said Baker's GP told him that he should not have been working, but he had fallen into debt when he decided to buy his house.

Sentencing, Recorder Phillip Kramer told Baker: 'In your case there was a substantial fraud involving £52,000 and it was over a long period of time. It crosses the custody threshold, but I can suspend it.'

As well as the suspended sentence and work order, Baker will also face a hearing under the Proceeds of Crime Act in 2015.

Outside court, a former pupil of Baker’s at his martial arts school said: 'He looked as fit as a fiddle when I trained with him. He took karate classes and used to join in. He should never have had a disability car. They are for disabled people not karate instructors who chase shop lifters. He worked every day in Game Station in the middle of the Prospect Centre. Everybody knows him.'


This case has just come to court - but he was interviewed over two years ago. And we aren't told how much earlier he was spotted by the alert "investigator".

He had been claiming for 17 years. And for stealing £52,000 he gets 200 hours of unpaid work.

18 Nov 2014

Digital investigation of benefit frauds

A reader writes:
Benefit fraud cases can only be investigated if the accused typically claims at least 10k in fraudulent claims. This is roughly the cost of each investigation into benefit fraud. The reason why cases involving benefit fraud are so high is largely down to the cost of gathering and analyzing the evidence. Experts are beginning to push back on the cut backs to investigations forced by the government agencies.

In terms of digital forensics investigations, which is what is largely used to convict these criminals, the bills can be high, but justified.

The resistance against the cap of digital forensics investigations can be easily justified when considerations are taken to the service provided and what it entails. The world-wide standards for software requirement and equipment needed to conduct digital forensic investigations must be current and fit for purpose. The UK prides itself on being the leader of standards worldwide to ensure quality of evidential procedures. As members of the UK we aim to retain those high standards to the best of our ability and continue to lead the world forward. If cuts are forced to be made to the procedures, software or hardware used, there may not be any guarantee of integrity of evidence, which would wrongly provide no fair standard of justice in court.

Digital examiners are required, as per the ‘UK ACPO guidelines for digital based evidence’ to ensure standards of skills are kept to a competent level. In order for competency to remain stable, experts must gain appropriate training certifications, experience and be kept up to date on new technological changes. Technology is continuously advancing, and so too are the crimes committed; therefore training is not a “one-off” but much more of an ongoing expense. This also ensures that appropriate justice is given to those appearing under scrutiny through their digital media. If we do not keep ourselves up to date with research and official training then we cannot keep up with the ever changing technologies out there.

Reducing the quality of work conducted could lead to a miscarriage of justice. This applies to both prosecution and defence work. In fact, shortly after the budgets were sharply lowered for prosecution cases (before the similar decrease in defence cases) experts working for defence were finding additional evidence that was missed due to cuts in the prosecution budget. The guilty are going free and the innocent are being convicted!

I am a little conscious of anyone getting the wrong end of the stick in thinking that digital forensics is cutting corners. Essentially it is - but we are being forced to due to budget cuts. We don't want to cut corners, we want to do the best to our ability but the cuts don't allow us to because it's physically not possible to run a business giving the standard we want to give for the money we are being paid. We want to provide the best evidence in order to give people a fair trial, but there is no cheap way to do that. And it is really something that needs to be addressed across the industry. Not just in digital forensics but across the legal sector (solicitors and other forensics etc).

The benefit fraud needs to be stopped before it gets to the stage of requiring an investigation. I believe that more stringent measures need to be put in place to stop it from happening because the cost to the UK for fraud is getting discussing.
My own take on this is that the digital evidence in benefit fraud court cases is often simple (such as offenders' facebook pages or bank accounts), which shouldn't need 'training certifications'. But I'd welcome other views.

Benefit scrounger family jailed

Today we highlight the case of a Liverpool family who systematically plundered taxpayers of more than £200,000 in fake benefits claims.

Samuel Bennett and his wife Patricia, both 64, claimed disability living allowance for ten years between 2002 and 2012 on the basis they were so ill they could not walk and needed round-the-clock care. They had also claimed disability benefits for their daughter Danielle Bennett, 30, since she was a child, and when she was an adult she maintained the lies, saying she was virtually unable to walk, needed 24-hour care, had systemic sclorosis, poly arthritis, Raynaud’s disease, psoriasis, Sjorgram syndrome and depression.

Danielle, 30, was sentenced to 18 months in prison, Samuel to nine months, and Patricia to 27 months.

Samuel Bennett said he had heart problems, depression and asthma whilst his wife claimed to have arthritis, asthma, irritable bowel syndrome and a hiatus hernia. The couple said they could only walk a few yards before falling over and needed sticks and other aids to do so. But they had lied about their supposed infirmities and had in fact embarked on nine luxury holidays over the period including to Australia, on a Caribbean cruise and to America three times. Footage showed Danielle diving into swimming pools, pulling a child on a suitcase and working as a beautician.

Old claim forms were found with notes written on them such as: “Just make it worse – think how this would sound”, and “Use this one (disability), we’ve used that one before”.

Source (with video)

Whatever happened to the disabilities review?

17 Nov 2014

Conditional discharge for £7k benefit fraud offence

A MAN landed in court for benefit fraud after stashing away £55,000 in savings and never telling his long-term partner – because he feared she would spend it all.

The court heard how 72-year-old William Scott was worried that his partner, Andrea Scott, would be tempted to spend all his savings if she knew it was there.

So he decided not to tell her – and that led to trouble when she claimed benefits that, as a couple, they were not entitled to.

Ms Scott had no idea about the hidden stash and made the pension credit claim – in fact the savings should have been declared. Mr Scott, 72, appeared at Grimsby Magistrates' Court where he admitted dishonestly causing or allowing details that were not full and accurate to be declared about his capital during a pension credit claim.

Martin Howarth, prosecuting, said Andrea Scott did not know that he had £55,000 to £67,000 of money in savings at the time. Scott knew that, if a benefit claim was being made, applicants were supposed to declare that they had savings of this amount available. "He thought that if he told her about the capital, she would have spent it," said Mr Howarth. "I can see his thinking! It's now out in the open."

Andrew Havery, mitigating, said Scott and Andrea Scott had been together for many years but were not married, although she had taken his name. She made a benefits application and a form was completed, including questions related to money.

Scott would have had knowledge of the form. He had savings of £55,000 but she did not know about those savings and did not declare them," said Mr Havery.

There was an overpayment of benefit totalling £7,225. Some of it was being reclaimed from her pension credit.

"What he should have done is make her aware that there were savings in the joint family income," said Mr Havery.

The court heard that since this came to light, about £40,000 of the £55,000 had been used to turn a leasehold property into a freehold one.

Scott was given a one-year conditional discharge and was ordered to pay a Government-imposed £15 victims' surcharge.


13 Nov 2014

Another "single" mother caught by her Facebook entry

A benefit cheat who swindled £57,210 of taxpayers’ cash by claiming she was a single mother-of-three was rumbled after she posted pictures of her wedding day on Facebook. She also failed to declare her jobs - one of them working for Coventry City Council.

Wendy Cooper, 44, claimed housing and council tax benefits and income support between September 2004 and October 2013. She was jailed for eight months.


12 Nov 2014

Two "single" mothers caught by their own Facebook entries

Stephanie Redmond wrongly claimed £20,000. She was given a 24 week jail sentence suspended for two years, ordered to carry out 200 hours unpaid work and handed a six-week curfew order.

And Shefford resident Jenna Priest applied for income and housing support on the basis that she was a single, unemployed parent. However, on her Facebook page, she was listed as being in a relationship with her landlord. She was fined £1,000 and was ordered to pay a £100 victim surcharge, as well as the full prosecution costs of £732.50. She was also told to repay the full housing benefit and income support overpayments totalling £6,325.19.