Gang members jailed for ‘industrial scale’ benefit fraud scheme

Five members of a gang that falsely claimed more than £53 million in universal credit, in what is thought to be the largest benefit fraud and money laundering-related scheme seen in England and Wales, have been jailed.

Judge David Aaronberg KC said that Gyunesh Ali, 34, had committed fraud by false representation “on an industrial scale” during the scheme involving fellow Bulgarians Galina Nikolova, 39, Stoyan Stoyanov, 28, Tsvetka Todorova, 53, and Patritsia Paneva, 27.

On Thursday at London’s Wood Green Crown Court, they were sentenced to a total of 25 years and five months’ imprisonment after previously pleading guilty to fraud and money laundering-related offences.

The judge warned them they are all liable to be deported after servicing their sentences and added that “an enormous amount of work” by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) had to be carried out in order to prosecute the gang.

Benefits fraud court case
Galina Nikolova, Gyunesh Ali, Patritsia Paneva, Stoyan Stoyanov and Tsvetka Todorova (CPS/PA)

He said: “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.”

Bundles of cash stuffed in shopping bags and suitcases, a luxury car and designer goods including watches, jackets and glasses were found during a raid on their properties, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) said.

The defendants had made thousands of false claims for benefits using real people or hijacked identities, with claims supported by an array of forged documents including tenancy agreements, payslips and letters from landlords, employers, schools and GPs.

If claims were rejected, the fraudsters would try time and again until they were granted.

Investigators even discovered three “benefit factories” in London, the CPS said, claiming to help people get a national insurance number using “claim packs” containing forged and false documents.

The gang would also give the claimants tips on how to fool the system, the court heard.

But after applicants made their claims, they left them in the hands of the gang who laundered money through a number of different accounts.

The court heard that messages and images were exchanged on a WhatsApp group at the height of the fraud showing the gang making fun of the “naivety of the DWP”.

The DWP would sometimes ask for pictures of people outside properties with the front door open to prove they lived there – Photoshop was used in mocked up images.

Ali and Nikolova were the main architects of the fraud.

The judge said that under current laws the maximum sentence he could give them was 10 years and “it is only the rarest of circumstances that this would be followed”.

He said he would also give the defendants credit for their guilty pleas, time served and some other mitigating factors.

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

He was sentenced to a total of seven years and six months’ imprisonment.

The judge told 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.”

The judge said the was some evidence of him “engaging in a lavish lifestyle” and there is video showing him showering money in the air.

After his release under investigation, Ali fled to Bulgaria but was extradited back to the UK on February 25 2023.

Nikolova, who was found to be responsible for £25 million in losses to the taxpayer, was sentenced to a total of eight years’ imprisonment.

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

In court, it emerged that Todorova and Nikolova had also tried, unsuccessfully, to flee the UK after their initial arrest in May 2021.

Paneva was jailed for a total of three years and two months. The judge took into account that she had been 19 when she was first recruited by Nikolova and had been initially paid £80 a day by the gang.

She pleaded guilty to entering into a money laundering arrangement and possession of articles for use in fraud. She also pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to make false representations on June 12 2023.

Todorova, who had pleaded guilty to conspiracy to make false representations and possession of articles for use in fraud, was sentenced to a total of three years’ imprisonment.

She was due to be released on licence on Thursday because of the time she has already served in custody and under house arrest.

Stoyanov was sentenced to four years after pleading guilty to conspiracy to make false representations and three counts of possession of articles for use in fraud.

An order for a surcharge is set to be made at a future confiscation hearing.

After sentencing, CPS specialist prosecutor Ben Reid said: “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.”