Berkell/Age Concern Saints and Scroungers


Berkell/Age Concern

Series looking at benefit fraud. The story of a single mum who was an astute businesswoman as well as a high-class escort, who ripped off the taxpayer to the tune of 28,000 pounds.


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Transcript


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Welcome to Saints and Scroungers, the show that exposes benefit thieves, cheats and liars,

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but it does also unearth the people that genuinely need help.

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This is the front-line in the battle against benefit fraud.

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Saints and Scroungers is all about busting benefit thieves who steal

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millions every year and the crack teams of investigators determined to scupper their devious scams.

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But we also

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shine the light on the Saints, those committed to putting money into

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the pockets of people who deserve it and the people too proud to claim what is rightfully theirs.

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Coming up on today's programme: A property tycoon rips off

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the taxpayer by posing as a struggling single mum.

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Every claim that that Rachel Berkel made to Cheshire East Borough

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Council, South Lakeland Council, Trafford Council and the Department for Work and Pensions was false.

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And the charity giving the young at heart a new lease of life.

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I'd been living on just under 150 and then all of a sudden

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I was living on almost double.

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It was the most wonderful feeling.

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Some cheats follow a pattern.

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They spot a scam and try it out, and if it works, they'll do it again and again and again.

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But all it takes is just one mistake and their whole house of cards will come tumbling down around them.

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And this is exactly what happened to serial fraudster Rachel Berkel.

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Single mum Rachel is a 40-year-old with a head for business.

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Over the past six years, she's made a packet from renting, buying and selling a portfolio of

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five properties and doing this while raking in tens of thousands by working as a high-class escort.

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Now you'd think that would have given her all the money she could want, but no, this Cheshire lady

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was also masterminding an epic cross-county benefit scam,

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ripping off the British taxpayer to the tune of £28,000.

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Berkel's devious scam began to unravel began in 2007 when a benefits application form was

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submitted to South Lakeland District Council, from an apparently destitute single mum

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who'd recently moved to the area with her eight-year-old daughter.

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She was already claiming Income Support, tax credits

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and child benefit, but now she wanted help with her rent,

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as fraud manager Alan Booth explains.

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She lived in a bungalow at a little village called Allithwaite,

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near Grange-over-Sands.

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And she claimed housing benefit at this address.

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The rent she said she was paying was £575 a month.

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And she also tried to claim council tax as well.

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Ms Berkel had declared that she had no savings, no job and no capital

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assets, so on paper, she appeared to be entitled to help with her rent.

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All South Lakeland needed now was evidence of her tenancy and details about her landlord.

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The house is owned by a guy who lived in the Cheshire area and she provided

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a tenancy agreement to show this, which had been signed by this chap.

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So there was proof.

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Now Rachel Berkel could start banking her cheques, right? Wrong.

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Fortunately, our benefit assessors are well trained and one of them

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cross-checked the housing benefit against the council tax record.

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She noticed that on the council tax system the previous owner of the property in Allithwaite

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had notified us that Rachel Berkel had purchased the property

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in April of 2007 and was the new owner.

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Hold your horses. So it appeared that the bungalow Rachel Berkel said she was renting, she in fact owned.

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At this point, alarm bells started ringing with the assessor

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and she immediately referred the case to the fraud team.

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The South Lakeland fraud team set to work and launched a full-scale inquiry into Rachel Berkel.

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And their first task was damage limitation regarding payments.

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We stopped the housing benefit immediately.

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The next stop was to verify with Land Registry who really owned the bungalow.

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The Land Registry document clearly shows that she became the owner of the property in April 2007.

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So it seems Rachel Berkel had been lying.

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Far from being on the breadline, this single mum clearly has the means to buy herself a property.

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The fact that she owned a property valued at £163,000 and attempted to

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claim housing benefit there shows a degree of dishonesty and deceit.

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With confirmation that Rachel Berkel had

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deliberately deceived the council, investigators delved a bit deeper.

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Next, they ran credit checks to see what else she'd been up to and there was quite a shock in store.

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The credit agency checks revealed that she'd had a number of mortgages

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at a number of differing addresses in the Cheshire, Manchester areas,

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and obviously, we decided at this point we wanted to ask her some questions about this.

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But then, just as the fraud team are closing in on this fraudster, she pulled a fast one.

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In December 2007, Ms Berkel moved out of our area, out of Cumbria, moved to the Cheshire district

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and we were led to believe that she moved to Knutsford, which is now part of Cheshire East.

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So, clearly feeling the heat, Rachel Berkel had swiftly turned her Grange-over-sands

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retreat into a holiday let and hot-footed it over to Cheshire.

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But South Lakeland kept a close eye on Ms Berkel and simply waited for her next move.

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And sure enough, in November 2007, she put in another

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claim for benefits, this time at Cheshire East Council.

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The very fact that she'd claimed housing benefit in Cheshire East

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was a fraudulent act in itself because she'd failed to declare

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to Cheshire East that she owned the property in Allithwaite, in our area.

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Alan alerted the fraud team at Cheshire East to the fact that Rachel was a property owner.

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And, assigned to the case was investigation officer Louise Newton.

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-Hi, Louise.

-Hello, Dom.

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Good to see you. The fact that she's jumped from one county to another,

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do you think that's her way of trying to avoid problems?

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More than likely. Looking at the case, as soon as

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as South Lakeland got wind that she owned the property, she moved to a different area thinking that

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her problems that she left behind wouldn't follow her and she could start afresh.

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-Doesn't work like that, though, does it?

-No, it doesn't at all.

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A few simple checks quickly revealed that far from being new to the area,

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Berkel had claimed from Cheshire East on three previous occasions going back to 2005.

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Determined to get a clear picture of what this suspect claimant was up to,

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investigators took a closer look at the Land Registry document for the Grange-over-Sands property.

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We noticed on the back there was a mortgage taken out on that property

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with Mortgage Express, and from that we got details of

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the application form, which detailed that she owned

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two further properties, buy-to-let properties.

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So when she applied for the mortgage for the Grange-over-Sands property,

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she was already, in fact, the proud owner of two other houses.

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These were in Cleethorpes on the north-east coast, rented out to paying tenants

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and were providing her with a nice little profit of nearly £600 a month.

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By tracking back a bit further, Louise also uncovered

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a fourth property that Berkel had sold in February 2005.

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-So all of a sudden, it's starting to snowball now, isn't it?

-Yeah.

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And also an undeclared income as well, she was actually working.

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Just how low can this woman go?

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She's not only been juggling a property portfolio, but now it seems

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the supposedly destitute Berkel had also been working.

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She's declared two employments which have been continuous from

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when she made the application, in April 2007, way back to August 2005.

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Now, she's declared her annual income as £45,000

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and that her take-home monthly income is £3,000.

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-So again, that's a substantial amount of money to be taking home.

-Yeah, not bad at all.

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Unbelievable.

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According to the mortgage application form, Berkel was

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raking it in, but just what was she doing to earn that amount of cash?

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Meanwhile, investigators were to uncover another surprise.

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A secret bank account.

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Why would she not declare this account to us?

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From my experience, it's normally because they have an income or they

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have capital in that account that they don't want you to know about.

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It was crucial that the fraud team get access to this bank account

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to see what Berkel was keeping so quiet about.

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We actually obtained a full set of bank statements for that account for the period she claimed with us.

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-You went through those with a fine-tooth comb.

-We did.

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The shocking truth was that on each of the occasions Rachel Berkel had

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claimed benefits from Cheshire East,

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she'd consistently had large sums of cash sitting in this secret account.

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At one point, the balance even hit £42,000.

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-I mean, it's a very healthy bank account.

-It is, yeah.

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-For a single mum claiming she's not earning much money...

-Yeah, definitely.

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Damning evidence was coming in thick and fast.

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And then the eagle-eyed investigators picked up on another lead...

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A possible fifth property in the council borough of Trafford.

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The housing benefit and council tax benefit application forms

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that she supplied to us in support of her claims...it asks for previous addresses on there.

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And on those forms it had the Trafford address on there.

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Berkel's scam appeared to be exploding in scale.

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Could the investigation be about to cross into a THIRD county?

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Later in the programme,

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the real truth about Rachel Berkel is exposed.

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She could have earnt as much as £1,000 per night...

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From the scroungers ripping off the system, to the people we call our saints -

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those individuals who help put money into the pockets pockets of people in genuine need,

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and the people too proud to claim what is rightfully due to them.

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If you've been working all your life, chances are you're

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going to be looking forward to those golden years of your retirement.

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But life has a nasty way of scuppering those plans,

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and for some people, those happy years

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turn into a struggle with finances, health and loss of independence.

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I've come to Kent to meet Queenie, a former community nurse whose hopes for a happy retirement

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were shattered when her health took a turn for the worse, and she started having blackouts.

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-What happened?

-Well, I was in the bathroom,

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and next thing I know I was patting the carpet.

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I thought, "What am I doing down here?"

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And I got up and I thought, "That was strange."

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-You couldn't remember anything?

-I couldn't remember a thing.

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Queenie's daughter was worried about her mum.

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She suggested that it might be safer if Queenie moved into sheltered

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accommodation, where help could be available to her around the clock.

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When she first said that, how did you react to that?

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-Erm...badly.

-I like the little smirk!

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No, I said, "No, I don't need it,"

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and she said, "We'll just find out about it."

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But despite Queenie's reservations, she agreed to leave her two-bed

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house in Gravesend, and move into a small warden-controlled studio flat five miles down the road.

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What was it like, once you moved into this sheltered accommodation?

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Terrible - cos I was losing my independence.

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And... you know, I felt really isolated.

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I had THAT feeling.

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Queenie was devastated about leaving her home behind -

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but her daughter's fears were proved well-founded,

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because she soon began to have more blackouts.

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Extensive medical tests finally revealed an aneurysm

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on Queenie's brain, which was causing her to fall unconscious.

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It's a serious condition, but one her consultant said COULD be managed.

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Well, he gave me tablets, and...

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touch wood, I've not had one since.

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Sounds to me that you got to a stage in life where you couldn't live on your own now.

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-Oh, no. No.

-You were well aware of that fact.

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I was aware of that fact, it made me accept this place better.

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Queenie reluctantly accepted her new circumstances - but the isolation was compounded by financial worries.

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How were you surviving for money? What was coming in?

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-Well, I had a private pension, I had my old age pension...

-Yeah.

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-And pension Credit?

-And Pension Credit.

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-So in total, what?

-About £150 a week.

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OK. Were you comfortable with that?

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Well...it was a struggle, but

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you have to manage when that's all you've got coming in.

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Queenie was at rock bottom when her son-in-law came up with an idea that changed her life.

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He suggested she get in touch with her local Age Concern day centre in Northfleet.

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We offer services such as bathing, chiropody,

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hearing clinics, advice, information and a listening ear - which I think

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is very, very important. Sometimes it's just somebody to talk to.

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Ann explained to Queenie that one of the first ways

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they'd be looking to help her was to give her a benefits check,

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to ensure she was getting her full entitlement.

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So you signposted her towards all the different benefits that she was rightly entitled to.

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Yes, the forms can take up to three hours. They're not easy for people

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-to always understand what's being said.

-Three hours for you.

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-Three hours for us!

-Three months for somebody who's not used to them.

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People would probably put it in the bin!

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But luckily for Queenie, her forms didn't wind up in the bin, because thanks to Ann's guidance,

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she discovered she was entitled to extra help.

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In addition to her state pension,

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Pension Credit and small private pension,

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Queenie was also awarded Attendance Allowance,

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a tax free benefit for the over-65s

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who need extra help caring for themselves

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due to illness or disability.

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She was also awarded extra Pension Credit and her rent and council tax

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are now taken care of by the local authority.

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I'd been living on just £150 and then all of a sudden,

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I was living on almost double.

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And, well,

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it was the most wonderful feeling to know that I could go out now

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and shop for the things that I wanted instead of just

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a limited amount of things.

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The Attendance Allowance has enabled Queenie to pay for extra help around the house.

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I've got a lady that comes in. Very, very nice and she'll do anything.

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She comes in and does cleaning for me. She does shopping.

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She does the ironing now, and if she's down the town and I want anything, she'll get it for me.

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In fact, she's the most pleasant person you could wish to meet.

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-You look like you're in your element here?

-I am.

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-You love it.

-I do, I love it.

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-Tell me what you like about it so much then?

-When I came here, it turned my life around.

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It gave me something to sort of look forward to and enjoy,

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and I seem to sort of be on the up and up again.

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-Good for you.

-Thank you.

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THEY SING

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APPLAUSE

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Back now to the world of the scrounger and the property tycoon

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posing as a destitute single mum in order to steal benefits.

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Investigators had established that while Rachel Berkel

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was presenting herself as someone in need of financial help,

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in actual fact, she was running a property portfolio.

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But they were soon to discover that she had another secret she was trying to keep from them.

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South Lakeland and Cheshire East councils

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were investigating 40-year-old Rachel Berkel,

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and they'd uncovered a trail of deceit spanning three years

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across at least two counties.

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She was pleading poverty in order to claim Income Support,

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tax credits, as well as housing and council tax benefits.

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Investigators had discovered that this supposedly unemployed woman was not only working,

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but that she was juggling a lucrative property portfolio,

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including a Lake District hideaway and three buy-to-lets in Cleethorpes.

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From the outset, it looks as though she's made conscious decisions

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not to disclose the fact that she owned these properties.

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Having fled South Lakeland and with a case ongoing in Cheshire,

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Rachel Berkel now suddenly appeared in the council borough of Trafford.

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All three councils started talking

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and the investigator at Trafford was David Wright.

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Right, what brought Rachel Berkel into your radar?

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We received a phone call from Cheshire East Council.

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They were conducting an investigation into her.

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They'd established she had an address in our area, in Hale,

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and they asked us to check was she registered at that address?

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Following the tip-off, David Wright immediately trawled the council records

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for a Rachel Berkel that had previously lived in the area.

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What our checks revealed was that she'd completed housing benefit

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and claimed that she was living at that property in Hale

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and she was renting it for £595 a month from Mr Singh.

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It turns out that four years ago, Rachel Berkel was claiming benefits

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from Trafford Council for a period of six months.

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In fact, she had netted £2,500

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while simultaneously claiming benefits

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back in Cheshire and owning multiple buy-to-let properties.

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But the personal details she'd provided to Trafford

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painted a very different picture.

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So on this claim form, what does she say?

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She told us that she was living at this property with her daughter,

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and she'd previously lived in Cheshire East Authority.

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And she'd said that she was working part-time.

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-Doing what?

-As a nail technician.

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OK, so basically someone who just manicures and things like that?

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Yeah, yeah. She'd only recently set up business

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and she told us she was only earning £80 a week.

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Clearly, nothing this woman said could be trusted,

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and there was another shock in store when the Cheshire fraud team suggested David take a closer look

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at the Land Registry document for the Trafford property.

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They told us they were already looking at her for the fact she owned property.

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They provided a document to us here

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which showed she'd not only bought it,

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she'd actually sold it on by the time we got involved, for £180,000.

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-How much of that was profit?

-About £40,000.

-That's quite a bit.

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Not bad. Not bad for six months.

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And that property that she's owned, bought and sold,

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was she paying the mortgage or was the council paying it?

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In effect, we were paying the mortgage for her.

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Unbelievable. Rachel Berkel was up to her favourite trick -

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claiming benefits for a property she actually owned.

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But what about this supposed landlord, Mr Singh?

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-This person is totally fabricated, yeah?

-As far as we were aware, he doesn't exist.

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How come you were giving her rent, thinking she's paying it to Mr Singh?

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Is it only when you investigate that you start looking?

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Only if we have reason to. Like all benefits, it's paid on trust and she provided a document,

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which, as far as we were concerned, proved that she rented the property, so we paid it on that.

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-So it's the trust element which she's taken advantage of?

-Yeah.

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Now that the investigators at Trafford had the full picture,

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they passed back everything they knew to Cheshire East, who were leading the investigation.

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Every single claim that Rachel Berkel made

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to Cheshire East Borough Council,

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South Lakeland Council, Trafford Council, and the Department for Work and Pensions, was false.

0:21:580:22:04

Investigators were now ready to make their move.

0:22:060:22:10

We decided to formally invite Rachel Berkel in

0:22:100:22:13

for an interview under caution so that we could present these facts to her.

0:22:130:22:17

And on the 28th August, 2008, Berkel sat down to face a grilling

0:22:180:22:23

by Cheshire East and the Department for Work and Pensions

0:22:230:22:28

about her alleged benefits scam.

0:22:280:22:29

Investigators first confronted Berkel with

0:22:290:22:33

the mortgage application forms that supposedly detailed her real income.

0:22:330:22:38

They also queried her savings

0:22:380:22:39

and the properties she'd previously owned.

0:22:390:22:42

She denied any knowledge of these forms.

0:22:420:22:44

When she was later questioned about the other properties,

0:22:440:22:49

she declined to answer any of our questions.

0:22:490:22:53

And when confronted with the fact

0:22:530:22:54

that original benefit application forms

0:22:540:22:56

showed she'd signed a declaration

0:22:560:22:58

stating the information was true, Berkel said,

0:22:580:23:01

"Nobody reads the small print, do they?"

0:23:010:23:04

But with nothing like a confession coming their way,

0:23:080:23:11

investigators needed evidence that would hold up in a court of law.

0:23:110:23:15

Following the interview under caution, we decided to send all

0:23:150:23:21

the documents that Rachel Berkel had provided to these mortgage companies

0:23:210:23:27

to a forensic examiner to examine them

0:23:270:23:29

and to clarify whether they were her signature or not.

0:23:290:23:33

If the signatures do belong to Rachel Berkel,

0:23:330:23:37

then the mortgage declaration forms detailing her income and savings

0:23:370:23:42

must be hers.

0:23:420:23:43

The information we received

0:23:430:23:45

back from the forensic examiners

0:23:450:23:47

confirmed that it was probable

0:23:470:23:48

that these signatures were Rachel Berkel's.

0:23:480:23:51

This was compelling evidence, but before investigators could

0:23:510:23:55

throw the book at Berkel, there was one final loose end still to tie up.

0:23:550:23:59

On her mortgage application form, Berkel said she'd been working,

0:24:030:24:07

earning a whopping £3,000 a month.

0:24:070:24:09

Clearly if this was true,

0:24:090:24:11

then it would be more evidence to wield in court.

0:24:110:24:14

So investigators got in touch with the company

0:24:150:24:19

where Berkel said she had worked,

0:24:190:24:21

but they were in for another shock.

0:24:210:24:23

So, on this letter that was provided by her employer,

0:24:230:24:26

they wanted to advise us that all their self-employed staff were high-class escorts.

0:24:260:24:32

Investigators then discovered that Berkel had an active profile

0:24:320:24:36

on the net and was going under the name of Cheshire Lady.

0:24:360:24:40

And she didn't come cheap.

0:24:400:24:42

She could have earned as much as £1,000 per night.

0:24:420:24:45

So, obviously, you can see that she could have

0:24:450:24:50

potentially been in receipt of quite a high amount of income.

0:24:500:24:54

After another no comment interview, the fraud teams were finally ready

0:24:550:24:59

to put benefit thief Berkel in front of a judge.

0:24:590:25:02

In July 2010,

0:25:050:25:06

the Cheshire lady was summoned to appear in Chester Crown Court.

0:25:060:25:11

She was accused of stealing £28,133.72

0:25:130:25:18

from South Lakeland, Trafford and Cheshire East Councils and the DWP.

0:25:180:25:23

She was hit with 15 counts of benefit fraud,

0:25:260:25:29

to which she pleaded guilty.

0:25:290:25:31

Berkel was then slapped with a criminal record

0:25:310:25:34

and sentenced to two months in the slammer.

0:25:340:25:37

You guys must feel pretty good with yourselves, because,

0:25:400:25:43

collectively, you've got together

0:25:430:25:45

from different counties and done a very good job.

0:25:450:25:48

Yes, we have, and this clearly shows how bordering local authorities have worked closely together

0:25:480:25:53

in successfully tackling this type of benefit fraud and it resulted in a very successful case.

0:25:530:26:00

-You've networked, you've got on, and in this case, you've got your woman, haven't you?

-Yes, that's right.

0:26:000:26:06

-Pat yourself on the back.

-Pat on the back. Well done.

0:26:060:26:09

Scrounger Berkel will now have to pay back every penny she pilfered in benefits.

0:26:120:26:17

Under the Proceeds of Crime Act, Berkel has been ordered to pay back

0:26:180:26:22

any profit she would have made from her one remaining property.

0:26:220:26:26

And she's now been forced to sell her Lakeland bolthole to foot the bill.

0:26:380:26:44

Rachel Berkel gave three different councils the run around, but in the end,

0:26:440:26:48

her own greed caught up with her and, thanks to a custodial sentence,

0:26:480:26:52

she'll be the one getting escorted around now,

0:26:520:26:54

except this time, it'll be by prison guard.

0:26:540:26:57

Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd

0:27:040:27:08

E-mail [email protected]

0:27:080:27:12

Dominic Littlewood presents a series looking at the work of fraud investigators searching out benefit thieves and meets the people they are stealing from - the genuine claimants.

Single mum Rachel is a 40-year-old with a head for business. Over the past six years she's made a packet from renting buying and selling a portfolio of five properties - whilst raking in tens of thousands by working as a high-class escort. But this 'Cheshire lady' was also masterminding an epic, cross-county benefits scam ripping off the British tax payer to the tune of £28,000.

Plus we meet Queenie, whose hopes for a happy retirement were shattered when her health took a turn for the worse and she started having blackouts. Can she be helped?


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