Bulgarian benefits fraudster says British prison ‘like a vacation’

Tsvetka Todorova, 53, was given a three-year sentence in May but served 18 months in prison on remand
Tsvetka Todorova, 53, was given a three-year sentence in May but served 18 months in prison on remand

A Bulgarian woman who was part of a gang that orchestrated the UK’s largest benefit fraud has said prison in England is “like a vacation home”.

Tsvetka Todorova, 53, Galina Nikolova, 39, Stoyan Stoyanov, 28, Gyunesh Ali, 34, and Patritsia Paneva, 27, were jailed for a total of 25 years last month at Wood Green Crown Court.

The five defendants, who “systematically plundered” the British welfare system, were convicted of stealing upwards of £50 million of taxpayer money.

Vassil Panayotov, a Bulgarian inspector who uncovered the fraud after noticing his home city of Sliven, was suddenly flooded with cash, believes the sums involved could be significantly bigger.

In an interview with Bulgarian media, Todorova admitted the true amount was likely much higher and said thousands of her compatriots had benefited from the scheme.

She said her time inside a British prison was like being on holiday and she was able to get her hair done and have a manicure.

Galina Nikolova, 39, Gyunesh Ali, 34, Patritsia Paneva, 27, Stoyan Stoyanov, 28, and Tsvetka Todorova, 53, still more than £50 million between them
Galina Nikolova, 39, Gyunesh Ali, 34, Patritsia Paneva, 27, Stoyan Stoyanov, 28, and Tsvetka Todorova, 53, still more than £50 million between them - UNIPIXS

The fraud saw false benefits claims made using an array of forged documents for Universal Credit by real people who were living in Bulgaria and who “were complicit and also gained financially”.

Todorova, who was operating her own scheme independently of the other gang members, stole just under £300,000.

She was given a three-year sentence in May.

Because she had already served 18 months in prison on remand, half of her sentence, she was able to leave court on licence. The other members of the gang are all still behind bars.

While on remand, Todorova was housed in HMP Bronzefield, in Ashford, Middlesex.

‘I never felt like I was in prison’

Speaking to BNT News, she said: “Living conditions in the prison are very good. I never felt like I was in a prison, it was like a vacation home.

“Nevertheless I was in a bad mental state in the first two months. There is a gym inside. There is a hair salon, I got a manicure there.

“These services are paid for but cost very little – from £2 to £5, which means this is absolutely accessible for everybody.

“You can do your hair or makeup… There are also educational courses. I even visited an art course inside.”

On its website, HMP Bronzefield, operated by Sodexo Justice Services, says it offers a “variety of employment opportunities” including catering and barista work, a hair and beauty salon, gym, and arts workshops.

Todorova insisted during her sentencing hearing that she had never met any of her co-defendants before being arrested.

She said she was operating her own scheme independently of the others and only made a relatively small amount of money.

During a search of her North London home, officers found £14,000 in various locations around her flat.

She added: “For me I can say, I haven’t won anything, I haven’t bought anything, I haven’t travelled on holiday anywhere.

“I’m afraid to go out on the street as a normal person, because people think I have money, but in fact I owe money.

“I never had a luxurious or posh lifestyle. I am living in a non-expensive area in a two-bedroom house.

“I never had a high income. In addition, I received financial support from the British state and I am very thankful for that to the British authorities.

“I want to say that I am very ashamed to be part of this. I never had any problem with UK state authorities before.”

The Telegraph understands that while further confiscation hearings are set to take place over the summer, currently just under £1 million has been recovered.

Sentencing the gang, Judge David Aaronberg KC said that the fraudsters had been able to operate for so long because of “woefully inadequate checking systems” at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), which failed to identify “repeated use of the same names, addresses and telephone numbers”.

The DWP previously said it had put measures in place to bring these people to justice, and to do so took a great deal of time, effort and investigation from the counter-fraud team.

It added that “easements” were put in place during the pandemic to ensure people were supported financially but “controls were now back in place”.

Sodexo has been contacted for comment.