A benefits fraudster who “hijacked” the identities of two dead friends has been ordered to repay more than £140,000 or face a further 18 months behind bars.
Paul Burnett, of Tadcaster, was jailed for three years last September after he admitted a complex benefits scam which lasted 17 years and netted him around £220,000 from the Department for Work and Pensions and councils across the North of England including Calderdale, Kirklees, Bradford and Selby.
Burnett’s web of deceit included the use of false tenancy agreements and fake documentation, but his cruellest scam involved using the details of a friend who died in a drowning accident in Greece in 1996.
Prosecutor Emma Downing told Bradford Crown Court last year that when the family of Michael Wells were contacted by the DWP about benefits claims for a house in Bradford his sister thought he may still be alive and that a mistake had been made at the time of his death.
In a victim impact statement Carolyn Eyre said the inquiry had give the family “a small flutter of hope” and Burnett’s offending had led to her father grieving all over again.
Burnett, 45, of Rose Lane, Tadcaster, was arrested in 2013 after Ian Wright, an old school friend, returned to England from Australia to find that his identity had been used to claim various benefits including housing and council tax benefit on a house in Alabama Street, Halifax.
Mr Wright had emigrated to Australia in 1993 and Miss Downing said from 1996 until August last year Burnett had meticulously planned and orchestrated a campaign of deception and dishonesty in order to claim state benefits to which he was not entitled.
The court heard that Burnett, a father-of-one, had also used the identity of another friend Michael Gilmartin, who had died in a motorcycle accident in Leeds in 1988.
While posing as Mr Wright during visits by council officials to Alabama Street Burnett also claimed that Mr Gilmartin was the landlord of the property.
In total Burnett fraudulently obtained housing and council tax benefits totalling just over £42,000 for Alabama Street and a further £4,600 in similar benefits for another property at Heather Bank in Todmorden.
He also obtained housing benefit and council tax benefit totalling almost £9,500 in relation to Buxton House in Huddersfield.
Burnett also claimed various benefits in his own name without declaring his true financial position and used the identity of his own uncle who had lived in France since 1991.
The defendant admitted a series of offences including fraud, making dishonest representations to obtain benefits and obtaining services by deception.
His barrister Stephen Wood conceded that Burnett now faced an inevitable prison sentence and said his client had “been seduced by greed”.
The court heard that Burnett had kept detailed diaries with information relating to each of the false identities and Judge Jonathan Rose noted that he had in effect been caught by accident after Mr Wright’s return to England.
The judge said it was an aggravating feature of the case that Burnett’s crimes had brought back raw and hurtful memories for the families of the men who had lost their lives many years ago.
Following an investigation into Burnett’s financial affairs under the Proceeds of Crime Act Judge Colin Burn on Wednesday declared that the defendant had benefitted to the tune of £331,847.67 from his offending and that he should repay £142,645.11 from his available assets.
Burnett will have six months to pay back the money, most of which will be used as compensation to the DWP.
It is understood that his assets include equity in his home in Tadcaster and the house at Alabama Street, Halifax, and various amounts of money in bank and building society accounts.
At the time of Burnett’s sentencing Nicola Wheeler, Unit Head of the Crown Prosecution Service’s Serious Fraud Division said: “This is an appalling case of professional benefit fraud, meticulously planned and carried out over nearly two decades.
“From 1996 to the date of his arrest in April 2013 Paul Burnett orchestrated a campaign of deception and dishonesty on an industrial scale in order to claim over £220,000 in a range of state benefits to which he was not entitled.
“He not only dishonestly claimed state benefits in his own name, but also hijacked the identities of a number of other people, who were targeted by the defendant because he knew that they had either died or had emigrated from England to live abroad.”