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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Welcome to Saints and Scroungers, the show that exposes benefit thieves, cheats and liars,
but it does also unearth the people that genuinely need help.
This is the front-line in the battle against benefit fraud.
Saints and Scroungers is all about busting benefit thieves who steal
millions every year and the crack teams of investigators determined to scupper their devious scams.
But we also
shine the light on the Saints, those committed to putting money into
the pockets of people who deserve it and the people too proud to claim what is rightfully theirs.
Coming up on today's programme: A property tycoon rips off
the taxpayer by posing as a struggling single mum.
Every claim that that Rachel Berkel made to Cheshire East Borough
Council, South Lakeland Council, Trafford Council and the Department for Work and Pensions was false.
And the charity giving the young at heart a new lease of life.
I'd been living on just under 150 and then all of a sudden
I was living on almost double.
It was the most wonderful feeling.
Some cheats follow a pattern.
They spot a scam and try it out, and if it works, they'll do it again and again and again.
But all it takes is just one mistake and their whole house of cards will come tumbling down around them.
And this is exactly what happened to serial fraudster Rachel Berkel.
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 and doing this while raking in tens of thousands by working as a high-class escort.
Now you'd think that would have given her all the money she could want, but no, this Cheshire lady
was also masterminding an epic cross-county benefit scam,
ripping off the British taxpayer to the tune of £28,000.
Berkel's devious scam began to unravel began in 2007 when a benefits application form was
submitted to South Lakeland District Council, from an apparently destitute single mum
who'd recently moved to the area with her eight-year-old daughter.
She was already claiming Income Support, tax credits
and child benefit, but now she wanted help with her rent,
as fraud manager Alan Booth explains.
She lived in a bungalow at a little village called Allithwaite,
And she claimed housing benefit at this address.
The rent she said she was paying was £575 a month.
And she also tried to claim council tax as well.
Ms Berkel had declared that she had no savings, no job and no capital
assets, so on paper, she appeared to be entitled to help with her rent.
All South Lakeland needed now was evidence of her tenancy and details about her landlord.
The house is owned by a guy who lived in the Cheshire area and she provided
a tenancy agreement to show this, which had been signed by this chap.
So there was proof.
Now Rachel Berkel could start banking her cheques, right? Wrong.
Fortunately, our benefit assessors are well trained and one of them
cross-checked the housing benefit against the council tax record.
She noticed that on the council tax system the previous owner of the property in Allithwaite
had notified us that Rachel Berkel had purchased the property
in April of 2007 and was the new owner.
Hold your horses. So it appeared that the bungalow Rachel Berkel said she was renting, she in fact owned.
At this point, alarm bells started ringing with the assessor
and she immediately referred the case to the fraud team.
The South Lakeland fraud team set to work and launched a full-scale inquiry into Rachel Berkel.
And their first task was damage limitation regarding payments.
We stopped the housing benefit immediately.
The next stop was to verify with Land Registry who really owned the bungalow.
The Land Registry document clearly shows that she became the owner of the property in April 2007.
So it seems Rachel Berkel had been lying.
Far from being on the breadline, this single mum clearly has the means to buy herself a property.
The fact that she owned a property valued at £163,000 and attempted to
claim housing benefit there shows a degree of dishonesty and deceit.
With confirmation that Rachel Berkel had
deliberately deceived the council, investigators delved a bit deeper.
Next, they ran credit checks to see what else she'd been up to and there was quite a shock in store.
The credit agency checks revealed that she'd had a number of mortgages
at a number of differing addresses in the Cheshire, Manchester areas,
and obviously, we decided at this point we wanted to ask her some questions about this.
But then, just as the fraud team are closing in on this fraudster, she pulled a fast one.
In December 2007, Ms Berkel moved out of our area, out of Cumbria, moved to the Cheshire district
and we were led to believe that she moved to Knutsford, which is now part of Cheshire East.
So, clearly feeling the heat, Rachel Berkel had swiftly turned her Grange-over-sands
retreat into a holiday let and hot-footed it over to Cheshire.
But South Lakeland kept a close eye on Ms Berkel and simply waited for her next move.
And sure enough, in November 2007, she put in another
claim for benefits, this time at Cheshire East Council.
The very fact that she'd claimed housing benefit in Cheshire East
was a fraudulent act in itself because she'd failed to declare
to Cheshire East that she owned the property in Allithwaite, in our area.
Alan alerted the fraud team at Cheshire East to the fact that Rachel was a property owner.
And, assigned to the case was investigation officer Louise Newton.
Good to see you. The fact that she's jumped from one county to another,
do you think that's her way of trying to avoid problems?
More than likely. Looking at the case, as soon as
as South Lakeland got wind that she owned the property, she moved to a different area thinking that
her problems that she left behind wouldn't follow her and she could start afresh.
-Doesn't work like that, though, does it?
-No, it doesn't at all.
A few simple checks quickly revealed that far from being new to the area,
Berkel had claimed from Cheshire East on three previous occasions going back to 2005.
Determined to get a clear picture of what this suspect claimant was up to,
investigators took a closer look at the Land Registry document for the Grange-over-Sands property.
We noticed on the back there was a mortgage taken out on that property
with Mortgage Express, and from that we got details of
the application form, which detailed that she owned
two further properties, buy-to-let properties.
So when she applied for the mortgage for the Grange-over-Sands property,
she was already, in fact, the proud owner of two other houses.
These were in Cleethorpes on the north-east coast, rented out to paying tenants
and were providing her with a nice little profit of nearly £600 a month.
By tracking back a bit further, Louise also uncovered
a fourth property that Berkel had sold in February 2005.
-So all of a sudden, it's starting to snowball now, isn't it?
And also an undeclared income as well, she was actually working.
Just how low can this woman go?
She's not only been juggling a property portfolio, but now it seems
the supposedly destitute Berkel had also been working.
She's declared two employments which have been continuous from
when she made the application, in April 2007, way back to August 2005.
Now, she's declared her annual income as £45,000
and that her take-home monthly income is £3,000.
-So again, that's a substantial amount of money to be taking home.
-Yeah, not bad at all.
According to the mortgage application form, Berkel was
raking it in, but just what was she doing to earn that amount of cash?
Meanwhile, investigators were to uncover another surprise.
A secret bank account.
Why would she not declare this account to us?
From my experience, it's normally because they have an income or they
have capital in that account that they don't want you to know about.
It was crucial that the fraud team get access to this bank account
to see what Berkel was keeping so quiet about.
We actually obtained a full set of bank statements for that account for the period she claimed with us.
-You went through those with a fine-tooth comb.
The shocking truth was that on each of the occasions Rachel Berkel had
claimed benefits from Cheshire East,
she'd consistently had large sums of cash sitting in this secret account.
At one point, the balance even hit £42,000.
-I mean, it's a very healthy bank account.
-It is, yeah.
-For a single mum claiming she's not earning much money...
Damning evidence was coming in thick and fast.
And then the eagle-eyed investigators picked up on another lead...
A possible fifth property in the council borough of Trafford.
The housing benefit and council tax benefit application forms
that she supplied to us in support of her claims...it asks for previous addresses on there.
And on those forms it had the Trafford address on there.
Berkel's scam appeared to be exploding in scale.
Could the investigation be about to cross into a THIRD county?
Later in the programme,
the real truth about Rachel Berkel is exposed.
She could have earnt as much as £1,000 per night...
From the scroungers ripping off the system, to the people we call our saints -
those individuals who help put money into the pockets pockets of people in genuine need,
and the people too proud to claim what is rightfully due to them.
If you've been working all your life, chances are you're
going to be looking forward to those golden years of your retirement.
But life has a nasty way of scuppering those plans,
and for some people, those happy years
turn into a struggle with finances, health and loss of independence.
I've come to Kent to meet Queenie, a former community nurse whose hopes for a happy retirement
were shattered when her health took a turn for the worse, and she started having blackouts.
-Well, I was in the bathroom,
and next thing I know I was patting the carpet.
I thought, "What am I doing down here?"
And I got up and I thought, "That was strange."
-You couldn't remember anything?
-I couldn't remember a thing.
Queenie's daughter was worried about her mum.
She suggested that it might be safer if Queenie moved into sheltered
accommodation, where help could be available to her around the clock.
When she first said that, how did you react to that?
-I like the little smirk!
No, I said, "No, I don't need it,"
and she said, "We'll just find out about it."
But despite Queenie's reservations, she agreed to leave her two-bed
house in Gravesend, and move into a small warden-controlled studio flat five miles down the road.
What was it like, once you moved into this sheltered accommodation?
Terrible - cos I was losing my independence.
And... you know, I felt really isolated.
I had THAT feeling.
Queenie was devastated about leaving her home behind -
but her daughter's fears were proved well-founded,
because she soon began to have more blackouts.
Extensive medical tests finally revealed an aneurysm
on Queenie's brain, which was causing her to fall unconscious.
It's a serious condition, but one her consultant said COULD be managed.
Well, he gave me tablets, and...
touch wood, I've not had one since.
Sounds to me that you got to a stage in life where you couldn't live on your own now.
-Oh, no. No.
-You were well aware of that fact.
I was aware of that fact, it made me accept this place better.
Queenie reluctantly accepted her new circumstances - but the isolation was compounded by financial worries.
How were you surviving for money? What was coming in?
-Well, I had a private pension, I had my old age pension...
-And pension Credit?
-And Pension Credit.
-So in total, what?
-About £150 a week.
OK. Were you comfortable with that?
Well...it was a struggle, but
you have to manage when that's all you've got coming in.
Queenie was at rock bottom when her son-in-law came up with an idea that changed her life.
He suggested she get in touch with her local Age Concern day centre in Northfleet.
We offer services such as bathing, chiropody,
hearing clinics, advice, information and a listening ear - which I think
is very, very important. Sometimes it's just somebody to talk to.
Ann explained to Queenie that one of the first ways
they'd be looking to help her was to give her a benefits check,
to ensure she was getting her full entitlement.
So you signposted her towards all the different benefits that she was rightly entitled to.
Yes, the forms can take up to three hours. They're not easy for people
-to always understand what's being said.
-Three hours for you.
-Three hours for us!
-Three months for somebody who's not used to them.
People would probably put it in the bin!
But luckily for Queenie, her forms didn't wind up in the bin, because thanks to Ann's guidance,
she discovered she was entitled to extra help.
In addition to her state pension,
Pension Credit and small private pension,
Queenie was also awarded Attendance Allowance,
a tax free benefit for the over-65s
who need extra help caring for themselves
due to illness or disability.
She was also awarded extra Pension Credit and her rent and council tax
are now taken care of by the local authority.
I'd been living on just £150 and then all of a sudden,
I was living on almost double.
it was the most wonderful feeling to know that I could go out now
and shop for the things that I wanted instead of just
a limited amount of things.
The Attendance Allowance has enabled Queenie to pay for extra help around the house.
I've got a lady that comes in. Very, very nice and she'll do anything.
She comes in and does cleaning for me. She does shopping.
She does the ironing now, and if she's down the town and I want anything, she'll get it for me.
In fact, she's the most pleasant person you could wish to meet.
-You look like you're in your element here?
-You love it.
-I do, I love it.
-Tell me what you like about it so much then?
-When I came here, it turned my life around.
It gave me something to sort of look forward to and enjoy,
and I seem to sort of be on the up and up again.
-Good for you.
Back now to the world of the scrounger and the property tycoon
posing as a destitute single mum in order to steal benefits.
Investigators had established that while Rachel Berkel
was presenting herself as someone in need of financial help,
in actual fact, she was running a property portfolio.
But they were soon to discover that she had another secret she was trying to keep from them.
South Lakeland and Cheshire East councils
were investigating 40-year-old Rachel Berkel,
and they'd uncovered a trail of deceit spanning three years
across at least two counties.
She was pleading poverty in order to claim Income Support,
tax credits, as well as housing and council tax benefits.
Investigators had discovered that this supposedly unemployed woman was not only working,
but that she was juggling a lucrative property portfolio,
including a Lake District hideaway and three buy-to-lets in Cleethorpes.
From the outset, it looks as though she's made conscious decisions
not to disclose the fact that she owned these properties.
Having fled South Lakeland and with a case ongoing in Cheshire,
Rachel Berkel now suddenly appeared in the council borough of Trafford.
All three councils started talking
and the investigator at Trafford was David Wright.
Right, what brought Rachel Berkel into your radar?
We received a phone call from Cheshire East Council.
They were conducting an investigation into her.
They'd established she had an address in our area, in Hale,
and they asked us to check was she registered at that address?
Following the tip-off, David Wright immediately trawled the council records
for a Rachel Berkel that had previously lived in the area.
What our checks revealed was that she'd completed housing benefit
and claimed that she was living at that property in Hale
and she was renting it for £595 a month from Mr Singh.
It turns out that four years ago, Rachel Berkel was claiming benefits
from Trafford Council for a period of six months.
In fact, she had netted £2,500
while simultaneously claiming benefits
back in Cheshire and owning multiple buy-to-let properties.
But the personal details she'd provided to Trafford
painted a very different picture.
So on this claim form, what does she say?
She told us that she was living at this property with her daughter,
and she'd previously lived in Cheshire East Authority.
And she'd said that she was working part-time.
-As a nail technician.
OK, so basically someone who just manicures and things like that?
Yeah, yeah. She'd only recently set up business
and she told us she was only earning £80 a week.
Clearly, nothing this woman said could be trusted,
and there was another shock in store when the Cheshire fraud team suggested David take a closer look
at the Land Registry document for the Trafford property.
They told us they were already looking at her for the fact she owned property.
They provided a document to us here
which showed she'd not only bought it,
she'd actually sold it on by the time we got involved, for £180,000.
-How much of that was profit?
-That's quite a bit.
Not bad. Not bad for six months.
And that property that she's owned, bought and sold,
was she paying the mortgage or was the council paying it?
In effect, we were paying the mortgage for her.
Unbelievable. Rachel Berkel was up to her favourite trick -
claiming benefits for a property she actually owned.
But what about this supposed landlord, Mr Singh?
-This person is totally fabricated, yeah?
-As far as we were aware, he doesn't exist.
How come you were giving her rent, thinking she's paying it to Mr Singh?
Is it only when you investigate that you start looking?
Only if we have reason to. Like all benefits, it's paid on trust and she provided a document,
which, as far as we were concerned, proved that she rented the property, so we paid it on that.
-So it's the trust element which she's taken advantage of?
Now that the investigators at Trafford had the full picture,
they passed back everything they knew to Cheshire East, who were leading the investigation.
Every single claim that Rachel Berkel made
to Cheshire East Borough Council,
South Lakeland Council, Trafford Council, and the Department for Work and Pensions, was false.
Investigators were now ready to make their move.
We decided to formally invite Rachel Berkel in
for an interview under caution so that we could present these facts to her.
And on the 28th August, 2008, Berkel sat down to face a grilling
by Cheshire East and the Department for Work and Pensions
about her alleged benefits scam.
Investigators first confronted Berkel with
the mortgage application forms that supposedly detailed her real income.
They also queried her savings
and the properties she'd previously owned.
She denied any knowledge of these forms.
When she was later questioned about the other properties,
she declined to answer any of our questions.
And when confronted with the fact
that original benefit application forms
showed she'd signed a declaration
stating the information was true, Berkel said,
"Nobody reads the small print, do they?"
But with nothing like a confession coming their way,
investigators needed evidence that would hold up in a court of law.
Following the interview under caution, we decided to send all
the documents that Rachel Berkel had provided to these mortgage companies
to a forensic examiner to examine them
and to clarify whether they were her signature or not.
If the signatures do belong to Rachel Berkel,
then the mortgage declaration forms detailing her income and savings
must be hers.
The information we received
back from the forensic examiners
confirmed that it was probable
that these signatures were Rachel Berkel's.
This was compelling evidence, but before investigators could
throw the book at Berkel, there was one final loose end still to tie up.
On her mortgage application form, Berkel said she'd been working,
earning a whopping £3,000 a month.
Clearly if this was true,
then it would be more evidence to wield in court.
So investigators got in touch with the company
where Berkel said she had worked,
but they were in for another shock.
So, on this letter that was provided by her employer,
they wanted to advise us that all their self-employed staff were high-class escorts.
Investigators then discovered that Berkel had an active profile
on the net and was going under the name of Cheshire Lady.
And she didn't come cheap.
She could have earned as much as £1,000 per night.
So, obviously, you can see that she could have
potentially been in receipt of quite a high amount of income.
After another no comment interview, the fraud teams were finally ready
to put benefit thief Berkel in front of a judge.
In July 2010,
the Cheshire lady was summoned to appear in Chester Crown Court.
She was accused of stealing £28,133.72
from South Lakeland, Trafford and Cheshire East Councils and the DWP.
She was hit with 15 counts of benefit fraud,
to which she pleaded guilty.
Berkel was then slapped with a criminal record
and sentenced to two months in the slammer.
You guys must feel pretty good with yourselves, because,
collectively, you've got together
from different counties and done a very good job.
Yes, we have, and this clearly shows how bordering local authorities have worked closely together
in successfully tackling this type of benefit fraud and it resulted in a very successful case.
-You've networked, you've got on, and in this case, you've got your woman, haven't you?
-Yes, that's right.
-Pat yourself on the back.
-Pat on the back. Well done.
Scrounger Berkel will now have to pay back every penny she pilfered in benefits.
Under the Proceeds of Crime Act, Berkel has been ordered to pay back
any profit she would have made from her one remaining property.
And she's now been forced to sell her Lakeland bolthole to foot the bill.
Rachel Berkel gave three different councils the run around, but in the end,
her own greed caught up with her and, thanks to a custodial sentence,
she'll be the one getting escorted around now,
except this time, it'll be by prison guard.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
E-mail [email protected]
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?