Burnley civil servant masterminded national benefits fraud

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CIVIL servant Vajid Ashraf masterminded a nationwide fraud to claim pensioners’ allowances.

Some of his victims were unable to look after their affairs, and one was dead, a court heard.

Ashraf (33), of Cumberland Avenue, Burnley, worked at the Department of Work and Pensions office in Simonstone, a computer headquarters dealing with pensions and pension credits.

Ten others were said to be embroiled in the scam.

Ashraf has admitted conspiracy to defraud but two of his co-accused, Shakeel Butt (27), of Lambeth Street, Blackburn, and Lucy Gakunga (21), of Birmingham, denied the allegation when they appeared at Burnley Crown Court.

Prosecutor Kevin Slack said Ashraf manipulated computer records.

Because of his role at the DWP, he was able to identify targets and, once he had done that, distanced himself from the fraud by getting someone else to receive cash being transferred into his chosen bank accounts.

Witness Sue Harwood, a security adviser with the DWP at Simonstone, said every payment, such as a state pension, pension credit or winter fuel allowance, could be tracked by using the person’s national insurance number and also by which person dealt with the paperwork, as every member of staff had a password and smart card to access the computer system.

She said most customers had their money paid directly into bank accounts and it was Ashraf’s job to look at instances where money had been returned by the banks because the accounts had been changed or the person had died.

Miss Harwood – described as the equivilant of investigator Andy Garcia in the crime thriller “Internal Affairs” – took the court through four complex audit trails which identified that Ashraf had channelled nearly £26,000 into four different accounts. He went into the pensioners’ accounts, used their national insurance numbers, and made notes on the files saying the person, or their legal representative, had phoned giving new bank details. He also suppressed letters that should have been sent to the pensioners informing them about their rights to appeal to the DWP if they had any queries about money which should have been paid.

“A lot of our customers are elderly and don’t realise what is happening, or they had died,” she said.

The court was told the family of one pensioner had written to the DWP to confirm her death and that pensions paid into her account had been stopped. Six months later, Ashraf used her national insurance number to get into her record. He changed them to say a legal appointee had written to the DWP in Warrington advising that payments had not been paid, and she was owed £3,862.65.

The bank details given belonged to Sima Khan, a student and single mother from Birmingham who had a lot of debt. She told the court she had been befriended by Shakeel Butt after telling a mutual friend about her money worries. She had been offered money to cover her debts and gave Butt her bank account details. On his instruction, she rang him to say the money was in the bank, and it was then he told her to transfer most of the money into another account at another bank.

She said the money was a loan and refused to follow his instructions but was frightened into complying after a group of stone-throwing Asian men arrived at her home and broke a window. Khan had earlier pleaded guilty to converting criminal property because pension credits payments of £117 continued to arrive in her account.

She was allowed to keep £30 or £40 and had to hand over the rest to Butt’s collector, another of the co-accused, Wayne Pecco, of Stoke-on-Trent.

Proceeding