Gang who comittted 'industrial-scale fraud against the Universal Credit system' by falsely claiming £53m

-Credit: (Image: CPS)
-Credit: (Image: CPS)

A gang who falsely claimed more than £53 million in Universal Credit - in what is believed to be the largest benefit fraud case in England and Wales - have been jailed.

The five criminals made thousands of false claims for benefits using real people or hijacked identities, with claims supported by an array of forged documents. When officers raided their homes they found bundles of cash stuffed in shopping bags, a luxury car, and designer goods.

Judge David Aaronberg KC described the fraudulent behaviour of 34-year-old Gyunesh Ali as false representation "on an industrial scale".

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This included activity with fellow Bulgarian citizens Galina Nikolova, 39, Stoyan Stoyanov, 28, Tsvetka Todorova, 53, and Patritsia Paneva, 27. At Wood Green Crown Court in London on Thursday, the group was collectively sentenced to 25 years and five months in prison, following their prior guilty pleas related to charges of fraud and money laundering.

Judge Aaronberg noted the likelihood of their deportation after serving their terms and referenced the significant effort by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) required to prosecute them. He stated: "This is believed to be cumulatively the largest case ever prosecuted for benefit fraud on the DWP. It was a difficult case to unravel and prosecute in a coherent fashion to the court."

The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) reported that during property raids, they discovered large amounts of cash stored in shopping bags and suitcases, a luxury car and numerous designer items including watches, jackets, and glasses.

The accused had submitted thousands of fraudulent benefits claims, using identities of real people or stolen ones, backing up their claims with a multitude of falsified documents such as tenancy agreements, payslips and letters from landlords, employers, schools and GPs. If claims were turned down, the criminals would persistently reapply until they got approval.

Investigators also found three "benefit factories" located in London, which the CPS said purported to aid people in obtaining a national insurance number by using "claim packs" filled with phony and altered documents.

In court, it was revealed the group also offered advice to claimants on how to deceive the system. But once applications had been submitted, applicants would abandon them to the fraudsters, who then funnelled funds through various accounts.

The court was presented with evidence that at the zenith of the scam, messages and photos had been shared within a WhatsApp group where members ridiculed the "naivety of the DWP". The DWP occasionally demanded photographs of individuals outside residences, with the front door open, as proof of residence these images were fabricated using Photoshop.

Ali and Nikolova were identified as the principal perpetrators behind this deceit.

According to the presiding judge, under present legislation the maximum custodial sentence they could receive was 10 years and emphasised that "it is only the rarest of circumstances that this would be followed".

He also mentioned he would award the defendants credit for their confessions of guilt, time already spent in custody, along with other mitigating factors.

Ali had admitted to conspiracy to make false representations, possession of articles for use in fraud and possessing criminal property. He was handed down a sentence of seven years and six months' imprisonment.

The judge informed Ali: "You played a leading role in a scheme that was complex and sophisticated in nature. Your offending lasted for some four-and-a-half years and were involved in a vast number of false declarations."

Evidence was presented of Ali "engaging in a lavish lifestyle", including footage of him throwing money in the air. After being released on bail, Ali fled to Bulgaria but was brought back to the UK under extradition on 25 February 2023.

Nikolova, found culpable for £25 million in taxpayer losses, received a sentence of eight years' imprisonment.

She pleaded guilty to two counts of conspiracy to make false representations, possessing criminal property and possession of articles for use in fraud.

Court proceedings revealed that Todorova and Nikolova had made an unsuccessful attempt to leave the UK after their arrest in May 2021.

Paneva was sentenced to three years and two months in prison. The judge noted that she was only 19 when first recruited by Nikolova and initially compensated £80 daily by the gang.

She admitted to participating in a money laundering scheme, in addition to possessing items meant for fraud. The guilty plea also included one count of conspiracy to create false representations on 12 June 2023.

Todorova, who confessed to conspiracy to construct false representations and possession of items designed for fraudulent activities, was given a three-year prison sentence.

Given the time already spent in incarceration and under house arrest, she was scheduled to be released on parole this Thursday.

Stoyanov was handed a four-year prison term after confessing to conspiracy to produce false representations and to three instances of possession of items intended for fraud.

A ruling for an additional surcharge is expected at an upcoming confiscation hearing.

After the sentencing, Ben Reid, a specialist prosecutor from CPS stated: "This case is the largest benefit fraud prosecution ever brought to the courts in England and Wales."

"For a number of years, these defendants conspired to commit industrial-scale fraud against the universal credit system, costing the taxpayer more than £53 million."

"Submitting thousands of false claims, the organised criminals enriched themselves from government funds designed to protect and help the most vulnerable people in our society."