Woman cleared in Simonstone DWP office fraud case

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A COMPLEX deception to divert pensioners’ benefits cash started at the Department of Works and Pensions office in Simonstone, a court has heard.

Burnley Crown Court was told pensioners’ national insurance numbers were used to claim cash from state pensions, pension credits, winter fuel allowances and cold weather payments and channelled into bank accounts in Leeds and Birmingham. The payments were then drawn out in cash, and paid into accounts at different banks.

The elaborate and sophisticated scam, said to involve 11 people, brought in around £27,000, money that should have gone to pensioners in Watford, Colchester, Bedford and Carlisle. The elderly people had drained their savings in order to live when their pension money stopped, and the personal details of one victim had been used after she died.

Two of the accused denied conspiracy to commit fraud and converting criminal property, i.e. laundering money from the pensioners’ accounts.

Shakeel Butt (27), of Lambeth Street, Blackburn – said to be the lieutenant of mastermind Vajid Ashraf, of Cumberland Avenue, Burnley, who has pleaded guilty, – was found guilty and will be sentenced along with others at a later date.

Architecture student Lucy Gakunga (22), of Ryland Road, Urdington, Birmingham, was cleared of two charges after the jury spent two days deciding her fate. She was found not guilty of conspiracy, but the jury could not reach a unanimous decision on the money laundering charge. Judge Robert Altham cleared her name.

Butt, who said he had been an innocent dupe and had been fitted up, admitted he knew other people in the conspiracy.

Prosecutor Mr Kevin Slack said Butt knew Ashraf through going to a local gym and had a list of notes, phone numbers and the bank account details for people alleged to have received money.

The court was told most of the pensioners’ money paid into accounts in Leeds and Birmingham was drawn out in cash and paid into Butt’s account. He then passed most of that money on, keeping, the prosecution said, a cut. The court was also told he had a previous conviction for drug trafficking.

Gakunga’s university wrote to the court to vouch for her good character and integrity. The jury was told she was befriended by Butt in the same way as prosecution witness Sima Khan, who also lived in Birmingham. Like single mum and student Miss Khan, Gakunga believed she was being offered a loan and wanted to pay off her debts. She said Butt abused her trust, and had also asked her to lie to the court.

In his summing up, Judge Altham reminded the jury of the evidence given by Gakunda who said: “He cornered me outside the magistrates’ court and asked me to change my story.” Butt denied he did that.

At the start of the 10-day trial written statements from pensioners Thomas Carlisle, of Watford, and Grace Anderson, of Colchester, were read to the court, saying they had not given anyone permission to change their bank details.

An official with Bedford County Council looking after care home resident Annie Coggins’s affairs endured the trauma of an internal investigation when Ashraf used her name to claim Mrs Coggins’s money.

Pensioner Annie Blalock lived in a home in Carlisle until her death. She had only ever used the Cumberland Building Society, but her money was traced to Lloyds TSB, in Birmingham.