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Revealed: Just 2% of Bulgarian fraud gang’s £54m stolen from taxpayers has been recovered – after grifters cheated benefits system by duping ‘naive’ DWP officials with fake payslips and letters

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Only two per cent of the Bulgarian fraud gang’s £54m in stolen taxpayer cash has been recovered, according to a report.

Britain’s biggest ever benefit scammers swindled the eye-watering sum by duping ‘naive’ DWP officials with fake payslips and letters to cash in on benefits.

The Eastern European gang of five hijacked 6,000 identities to make claims for Universal Credit and used the names of children living in Bulgaria as part of the five year scam.

But despite being jailed on Thursday for a combined total of more than 25 years, only £1m of the ill-gotten gains have been recovered, according to The Telegraph

However the true figure is believed to be significantly higher and prosecutors initially discussed charging the defendants with defrauding almost £100m. 

Only two per cent of the Bulgarian fraud gang's £54m in stolen taxpayer cash has been recovered. Pictured: Two of the criminals - Galina Nikolova, 38, and Stoyan Stoyanov, 27 - pictured together in 2020 while on holiday in Turkey

Only two per cent of the Bulgarian fraud gang’s £54m in stolen taxpayer cash has been recovered. Pictured: Two of the criminals – Galina Nikolova, 38, and Stoyan Stoyanov, 27 – pictured together in 2020 while on holiday in Turkey

When Gyunesh Ali's mobile phone that was seized, officers found a video showing the fraudsters showering their flat with hundreds of £20 notes

When Gyunesh Ali's mobile phone that was seized, officers found a video showing the fraudsters showering their flat with hundreds of £20 notes

More confiscation hearings are set to take place over the summer, with HMRC promising to ‘remove from them any available criminal benefit from this enterprise’. Pictured: When Gyunesh Ali’s mobile phone that was seized, officers found  a video showing the fraudsters showering their flat with hundreds of £20 notes

However the true figure is believed to be significantly higher and prosecutors initially discussed charging the defendants with defrauding almost £100m. Pictured: Huge stacks of cash found during the investigation

However the true figure is believed to be significantly higher and prosecutors initially discussed charging the defendants with defrauding almost £100m. Pictured: Huge stacks of cash found during the investigation

More confiscation hearings are set to take place over the summer, with HMRC promising to ‘remove from them any available criminal benefit from this enterprise’.

The squad set up three ‘benefit factories’ across London churning out bogus tenancy agreements, counterfeit payslips and forged letters from landlords, employers, and GPs to trick the DWP.

They appeared to be hiding in plain sight – posting photos on social media smiling and posing behind the counter of Antonia’s Foods supermarket in Wood Green. 

A system involving burner phones lowered down to waiting customers via a bucket pulley mechanism was also used to improve the scam’s efficiency.

The enormous haul of money gained from their ‘complex financial web’ of claims was laundered through a number of accounts, then withdrawn in cash – with £750,000 in bank notes found stuffed in suitcases at one of their homes.

On Thursday, the shameless gang were hauled in front of a judge at Wood Green Crown Court who said ringleader Galina Nikolova, 38, was responsible for at least £25million lost to UK taxpayers. 

The enormous haul of money gained from their 'complex financial web' of claims was laundered through a number of accounts, then withdrawn in cash – with £750,000 in bank notes found stuffed in suitcases at one of their homes

The enormous haul of money gained from their ‘complex financial web’ of claims was laundered through a number of accounts, then withdrawn in cash – with £750,000 in bank notes found stuffed in suitcases at one of their homes 

A system involving burner phones was used to improve the scam's efficiency

A system involving burner phones was used to improve the scam’s efficiency

Gyunesh Ali, 33, was also part of the gang. He was jailed for seven years and three months

Gyunesh Ali, 33, was also part of the gang. He was jailed for seven years and three months 

Patritsia Paneva, 26, pleaded guilty alongside the four other criminals at Wood Green Crown Court on Thursday

Tsvetka Todorova, 52, pleaded guilty alongside the four other criminals at Wood Green Crown Court on Thursday

Patritsia Paneva, 26, (left) wept as she was sentenced to three years and two months imprisonment on Thursday. Tsvetka Todorova, 52, (right) was jailed for three years, but was released on licence because she had served 625 days on remand 

Nikolova seen standing behind the counter of Antonia's Foods in Wood Green, pouting at the camera alongside an unknown man

Nikolova seen standing behind the counter of Antonia’s Foods in Wood Green, pouting at the camera alongside an unknown man 

Lovers Nikolova and Stoyanov cuddle up together in an earlier snap taken in Palmers Green, north London

Lovers Nikolova and Stoyanov cuddle up together in an earlier snap taken in Palmers Green, north London

Gyunesh Ali, 33, even took a video of himself throwing wads of cash at an unknown woman.

Both Nikolova and Ali, described in court as the leading architects of the scam, are believed to have purchased property in Bulgaria.

Bulgarian Inspector Vassil Panayotov, who uncovered the fraud after noticing his home city of Sliven was suddenly flooded with cash, believed the stolen sum could be even larger. 

Ali, Nikolova, and her boyfriend Stoyan Stoyanov, 27, along with Tsvetka Todorova, 52, and Patritsia Paneva, 26, were arrested on 5 May 2021.

Stoyanov had a tattoo of Nikolava on his right arm and posted a photo of it along with a red rose on social media.

Nikolova, who also ran her own Bulgarian interpreting firm, boasted ‘the air that I breathe’ as they cuddled in another shot while the couple also enjoyed a lavish trip to Istanbul.

DWP investigators searched their homes and found shopping bags crammed with designer goods, Rolex watches, jackets and wads of cash.

One of the hubs was behind a functioning corner shop selling groceries.

The group appeared to be hiding in plain sight – posting photos on social media smiling and posing behind the counter of Antonia’s Foods supermarket in Wood Green.

A system involving burner phones lowered down to waiting customers via a bucket pulley mechanism was also used to improve the scam’s efficiency.

The enormous haul of money gained from their ‘complex financial web’ of claims was laundered through a number of accounts, then withdrawn in cash – with £750,000 in bank notes found stuffed in suitcases at one of their homes.

They used their ill-gotten gains to fund luxury lifestyles, buying designer clothes, watches and even a high-end Audi sports car

They used their ill-gotten gains to fund luxury lifestyles, buying designer clothes, watches and even a high-end Audi sports car

Nikolova and Stoyanov pose at an attraction during a lavish trip to Istanbul

And here the crooked duo pause to snap a selfie during a visit to Manchester

Spending the taxpayer’s cash: Nikolova and Stoyanov pose at an attraction during a lavish trip to Istanbul (left) in September 2020, before later sharing a photo together on a jaunt to Manchester (right) in October 2020

Stoyanov poses on social media with a red rose laid on him and a tattoo of a woman on his arm that looks like his co-conspirator Nikolova

Stoyanov poses on social media with a red rose laid on him and a tattoo of a woman on his arm that looks like his co-conspirator Nikolova

Nikolova poses on her Instagram, where she shares images with her fellow fraudster Stoyan Stoyanov

Nikolova poses on her Instagram, where she shares images with her fellow fraudster Stoyan Stoyanov

Police bodycam footage shows the moment Nikolova was arrested and taken into custody

Police bodycam footage shows the moment Nikolova was arrested and taken into custody 

In another post on social media, shameless Nikolova is seen posing in an elaborate dress

In another post on social media, shameless Nikolova is seen posing in an elaborate dress 

Judge David Aaronberg, KC, said that the fraud was carried out on an ‘industrial scale’.

He referred to ‘messages sent to Ms Paneva including those making fun of the DWP’s gullibility in processing fraudulent claims. 

Ali, Nikolova, Stoyanov, Todorova, and Paneva, all admitted fraud and money laundering offences dating from between October 2016 and May 2021.

While under investigation Ali fled the country to Bulgaria. But he was extradited back to the UK on 25 February 2023.

Ben Reid, Specialist Prosecutor for the CPS, said earlier: ‘This case is the largest benefit fraud prosecution ever brought to the courts in England and Wales.

‘For a number of years, these defendants conspired to commit industrial-scale fraud against the Universal Credit system, costing the taxpayer more than £50 million.

‘Submitting thousands of false claims, the organised criminals enriched themselves from government funds designed to protect and help the most vulnerable people in our society.

‘This was a complex and challenging case which required close and effective working between CPS prosecutors, the Department for Work and Pensions and our international partners in both Bulgaria and through the UK desk at Eurojust, to dismantle and successfully prosecute the organised crime group.

‘The guilty pleas entered by all five defendants, reflects the strength of the evidence against them.

‘The CPS Proceeds of Crime Division and DWP will now pursue confiscation proceedings against the defendants, to remove from them any available criminal benefit from this enterprise.’

The roll call of Britain’s benefit’s cheats: 

Benefit fraud in Britain peaked at £8.6billion between 2021 and 2022, almost double what the levels they were at before the pandemic.

It has led to dozens of convictions over the last few years. Here, MailOnline highlights some of the crooks:

Ethel McGill, 72

McGill was labelled ‘Britain’s worst benefits cheat’ when she swindled £750,000 by hiding her father’s death and faking dementia.

Ethel McGill, pictured, pretended she had dementia as part of a long-running benefits and disability fraud

Ethel McGill, pictured, pretended she had dementia as part of a long-running benefits and disability fraud 

It led to the amateur actress to being jailed for five years and eight months in July 2019 before being given an extra months on her sentence in 2020 for failing to pay back £200,500 of her ill-gotten gains.

At Liverpool Crown Court, McGill admitted hiding her late father Robert Dennison’s death for 12 years so she could claim his war pension and benefits.

On one occasion she got a friend to lie under a blanket and pretend to be him at her home in Runcorn, Cheshire.

The CPS said at the time that it was one of the ‘largest ever cases of benefit fraud by a single person’.

Ali Bana Mohamed, 42

Ali Bana Mohamed, 42, was jailed in 2022 for masterminding a decade-long scam to cheat taxpayers out of at least £1.7million

Ali Bana Mohamed, 42, was jailed in 2022 for masterminding a decade-long scam to cheat taxpayers out of at least £1.7million

Mohamed, from Hulme in Manchester, faked the identities of almost 200 children to pocket public money.

He was jailed in 2022 for masterminding a decade-long scam to cheat taxpayers out of at least £1.7million. 

He enlisted relatives and friends to assist him in submitting bogus claims under about 70 different names, using stolen identities of adults along with the fake birth certificates of 188 children.

All the fraudulent claims were made on the basis that the adult had care of named children and was entitled to child benefit and tax credits.

Mohamed admitted 29 fraud offences and was sentenced to three and a half years in prison in 2022. Last year he was ordered to repay more than £2million. 

Neil Filer, 46

Filer pocketed nearly £30,000 of taxpayers’ money after falsely claiming he had an array of serious medical conditions – then splurged the cash on cocaine and a lavish lifestyle.

Neil Filer (pictured) pocketed nearly £30,000 of taxpayers¿ money after falsely claiming he had an array of serious medical conditions

Neil Filer (pictured) pocketed nearly £30,000 of taxpayers’ money after falsely claiming he had an array of serious medical conditions

He told the Department for Work and Pensions he had diabetes, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis and right-sided weakness after a heart attack – adding that his health was so bad he could walk only short distances.

 The crook insisted he needed help with washing, bathing, dressing, preparing food, reading and remembering to eat, leading to extensive claims under the Personal Independent Payments scheme.

Meanwhile, on social media he made ‘boastful’ posts about an action-packed holiday to Orlando, Florida, with pictures showing him unaccompanied on a ’90ft drop slide’ at a waterpark and on a roller-coaster. 

Filer pleaded guilty to a single count of fraud, claimed £29,245 over four years and nine months. He was likened to Little Britain character Andy Pipkin, who pretended to be disabled, after he was jailed for 11 months. 

Mercedes Bradley, 33

Former Virgin Atlantic air stewardess Mercedes Bradley defrauded the taxpayer for £10,000 in benefits even though she had £48,000 in a secret bank account

Former Virgin Atlantic air stewardess Mercedes Bradley defrauded the taxpayer for £10,000 in benefits even though she had £48,000 in a secret bank account

Former Virgin Atlantic air stewardess Bradley claimed Universal Credit benefits even though she had £48,000 in a secret bank account where she received payments from ‘ex-boyfriends’ – one of whom transferred her more than £30,000.

She admitted was of dishonestly failing to notify the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) of capital savings or investments which would affect entitlement to Universal Credit between March 26 2020 and August 28 2021. 

During this time she splashed cash on a boob job, other cosmetic surgery and a Peloton exercise bike. She was sentenced to 150 hours of unpaid work in November 2022.



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