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Last Updated: Monday, 14 January 2008, 17:52 GMT
Pensioner jailed for '2.4m' scam
Secret room
A secret office was accessible from the back of a wardrobe

A pensioner has been jailed for five years for masterminding a benefits scam worth as much as 2.4m.

Jean Hutchinson, 65, ran an office hidden behind a secret door at the back of her bedroom wardrobe in her flat in Maida Vale, west London.

She scoured newspapers to find people who had emigrated before using their identities to claim benefits, Blackfriars Crown Court heard.

Hutchinson pleaded guilty to conspiring to defraud between 1996 and 2006.

'Criminal enterprise'

With the help of a cousin and lax information controls, she was able to amass a seven-figure fortune from false benefit claims, before ploughing the cash into property and shares.

A five-month surveillance operation was launched by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) after they discovered the "highly profitable" scam.

Ralph Dale and Jean Hutchinson
Ralph Dale and Jean Hutchinson worked together on the scam

Investigators found a hidden doorway leading to a fully equipped "headquarters" where thousands of documents, neatly filed and cross-referenced, were found.

"The fact that the fraudsters found it necessary to construct what was effectively an archive of the fraud indicates the sheer scale of their criminal enterprise," said Anuja Dhir, prosecuting.

Hutchinson's cousin, Ralph Dale, 63, of Halifax, West Yorkshire, was jailed for four years after pleading guilty to conspiracy to defraud.

Passing sentence, Judge Deva Pillay said their crimes allowed them to accrue "what can only be described as extraordinary amounts of money".

These defendants thought they could keep their benefit fraud locked out of sight
Anti-Fraud Minister James Plaskitt

The judge said: "Over a 13-year period you both - and I have no doubt with the connivance of others not before this court - defrauded the Department of Work and Pensions and various local authorities out of sums said to be in excess of 2.4m by falsely claiming various state-funded benefits.

"Upon the basis of pleas tendered by each of you, the prosecution now estimate, over the 10 years for which each of you appear to accept responsibility, some 1.8m of public money was handed over to you and your accomplices.

"That equates to a staggering 180,000 per annum," she said.

After the case, anti-fraud minister James Plaskitt said: "These defendants thought they could keep their benefit fraud locked out of sight.

"But thanks to our determined fraud investigators their deception had been uncovered and terminated with immediate effect."





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