Jail for 'UK's biggest benefit fraudsters' who stole £53m using fake claims

Five gang members who falsely claimed more than £53m in benefits have been jailed for a total of 25 years.

In what is thought to be the largest benefit fraud and money laundering-related scheme in England and Wales, the gang made thousands of false universal credit claims using real people or hijacked identities.

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

At Wood Green Crown Court in London, they were sentenced to a total of 25 years and five months in prison after pleading guilty to multiple fraud and money laundering-related offences.

They were also all warned they are liable to be deported after serving their sentences and the judge acknowledged "an enormous amount of work" was carried out by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to prosecute the gang.

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

One gang member was also filmed throwing stacks of £20 notes in the air.

The gang supported their false benefits claims with an array of forged documents, including tenancy agreements, payslips and letters from landlords, employers, schools and GPs.

If the claims were rejected by the DWP, the gang would try again until they were accepted.

Investigators discovered three "benefit factories" in London, where they claimed to help people obtain national insurance numbers using "claim packs" of forged and false documents, the CPS said.

The court heard they also gave claimants tips on how to fool the system.

After applicants made the claims, they left them in the gang's hands and they then laundered the money through several bank accounts.

Ali and Nikolova were the main people behind the fraud.

The judge said the maximum sentence he could give them under current laws is 10 years but added he would give them credit for their guilty pleas, time served and other mitigating factors.

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Ali, who had pleaded guilty to conspiracy to make false representations, possession of articles for use in fraud and possessing criminal property, was sentenced to seven years and six months in prison.

The judge told him: "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."

He had fled to Bulgaria after his arrest but was extradited back to the UK in February 2023.

Nikolova, who was found to have caused £25m in losses for taxpayers, was given eight years in prison.

Todorova was given a three-year sentence but she was due to be released on licence on Thursday because of time already served in custody and under house arrest.

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

Paneva was 19 years old and was paid £80 a day when she was recruited by the gang's leaders for the scheme. She was jailed for three years and two months.

Stoyanov was sentenced to four years in prison after also pleading guilty to multiple charges.

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