UK

Criminal gangs lure migrants to UK for benefit fraud

Image caption Criminal gangs are stealing the identity of job-seeking Poles to commit benefit fraud in the UK

Polish criminal gangs are defrauding the benefits system and conning banks by luring poverty-stricken Poles to Britain with false promises of work and then stealing their identities.

"I just grabbed my child and never went back.

"I left everything in the flat - a buggy, my child's cot and all of our clothes - everything."

Anna - not her real name - is a single mum in her late twenties, from Poland. She anxiously recalls how she fled a criminal gang in London who were using her identity to cheat the benefits system and run up large debts in her name.

In an interview with 5 Live Investigates, she explains that she was lured by a friend who promised her free travel to the UK and work when she arrived - only to discover that her real job was to unwittingly assist the fraudsters.

"The lady, who was a member of the gang, was very nice to me. One day she took me to the Jobcentre and a bank. She explained I needed to apply for a National Insurance number, before I could get a job.

"At the time, when I came to the UK, I was not able to speak or read in English. I had no idea what she, as my interpreter, said on my behalf, and what kind of questions the Jobcentre officer asked her. I had no idea what is legal and what is not.

"The gang applied, on my behalf, for child benefit, working tax credit and child tax credit - and they registered me as self-employed."

Elaborate scam

As a declared self-employed person with a child, Anna was eligible for benefits and tax credits worth up to £7,500 per year if the gang pretended she was working.

Image caption Gang members took Polish migrants to Jobcentres and banks and completed paperwork on their behalf

Suffice to say, it was the gang who were reaping the rewards since they controlled her bank account and employment returns.

Anna's criminal handlers stole her ID card and her child's passport, and tried blackmailing her to return to Poland to recruit more victims. She was told to lie and tell people she could guarantee them three month's wages.

The day before the gang had planned to fly her back to Poland, Anna found an excuse to leave the home she shared with other migrants.

"I said, 'I want to visit my friend and say goodbye'."

Instead, she ran away.

Still living in the UK, Anna now has a legitimate job, working as a cleaner, but she is still being pursued by the gang for £5,000 they say she owes them for food and rent. However, she knows they have run up £600 in bank debts and claimed benefits in her name.

Any EU citizen is free to seek employment in Britain, and may have a legitimate benefit claim in the UK.

Back in 2004, when eight countries, including Poland, joined the European Union, the then Labour government permitted citizens of these accession countries to work in Britain - a concession not granted by all western European countries.

In turn, these new migrant workers could apply for benefits made available to people in employment, such as tax credits. Last week, it was announced that from May, migrants from the eight countries which joined the EU in 2004 will be able to claim full benefits in the UK for the first time.

It is believed the criminal gangs which lured Anna to London are specifically targeting the UK.

Soren Petersen, spokesperson for Europol, the European law enforcement organisation, told 5 live Investigates: "It seems to mainly be a UK phenomenon and the British authorities are aware of it.

"Europol has not received any information or inquiries from other major western European countries concerning the trafficking of people from Poland, or other accession countries, in order to use their identities for credit fraud or to claim benefits."

'Told to lie'

Twenty-one-year-old Piotr is another young jobseeker exploited by the fraudsters, after he says he was enticed to come to Britain by a member of a Polish Romany gypsy gang, who offered to pay his fare and promised him work.

Image caption Criminal gangs target young Poles in poor towns where unemployment is high

Like many of the young jobseekers targeted by the gangs, Piotr is from a very poor rural town in Poland, where unemployment is high.

Unsurprisingly, he jumped at the offer of a well-paid job in London.

"When we arrived in the UK, we were accommodated in a house with a family, and we were treated really nicely," he recalls.

"Every morning we would get a pack of cigarettes. They even used to give us £30 or £40 every day for pocket money. And then after two days they started taking us places - they took us to a GP surgery, and a Jobcentre.

"We had a skilled Polish translator with us and they gave us forms which they said we needed to sign to register for work.

"And then they took us to a bank to open a bank account. I was surprised. I said 'I don't have a job so why do I need an account?' But they said they needed it to pay my salary in to, so I signed up."

His suspicions grew when he was taken by gang members to the local Jobcentre.

"Before we entered the Jobcentre we were told to lie to the officers. And I asked why are we doing this?

"They said that if you want to get priority in the queue for a job, it's better to say you have children - small children. So we were forced by the gang to lie in front of the staff."

After a couple of weeks in Britain, the gang members informed Piotr and his friends that there would be no work for them after all, due to the economic downturn and sent them back to Poland.

He had handed over his passport to the gang so they could buy tickets for his journey home, but it was never returned.

New clamp down

Piotr only realised that he was the victim of a con-trick several months later, after he returned to Poland without ever securing a full-time job.

"When we got back, all of us friends gathered and shared our experiences. We realised that we had all been taken to Jobcentres and banks, and some of us had been asked to lie about having children.

"We tried to call the guy who had recruited us in Poland and the first few times they would pick up the phone and say, 'no worries guys, it will be fine and we'll bring you back to the UK'.

"But after a few days they stopped taking our calls.

"Then after a month or so I got two letters, one from a British bank asking for a payment of £140 and another from a Canadian bank asking for CA$200."

The gang had used Piotr's personal details to make loan applications for which he is now expected to pay.

The scale of people trafficking into the UK for bank and benefit fraud remains unknown.

But tales of down-and-outs being plied with drink and encouraged to visit the UK to make false benefit claims and open bank accounts before being sent home are rife among the Polish migrants who spoke to the BBC.

HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) has promised renewed efforts to clamp down on "benefits tourists".

In a statement, a spokesperson for the HMRC told the BBC: "The government has made it very clear that it will not put up with these crooks lining their pockets at the expense of honest taxpayers.

"HMRC has been given £900m to crack down on them. An extra 200 HMRC investigators are currently being recruited to make sure these cheats start paying their way."

You can hear the full report on 5 live Investigates on Sunday, 6 March at 2100 GMT on BBC Radio 5 live.

You can also listen again on the BBC iPlayer or by downloading the 5 live Investigates podcast.

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