Some benefit fraud cases take months and even years to investigate, can be complex and very involved. They take a lot of hard work, hours spent trying to establish and demonstrate links between people, finances, businesses and properties, for example. Then there are those which just fall at your feet, such is the case of the ‘High Rise Prostitute’.
Council Fraud Teams, in the main, intelligence score all referrals of alleged fraud they receive in order to ensure they are spending their investigative resource wisely. In the case of referrals from members of the public those which simply say, “Mrs Smith at 10 Any Street has a man living with her” will go to the bottom of the pile, whereas a referral which names and describes Mrs Smith’s boyfriend, details the car he drives, where he works and the time he leaves and returns to the house will be given more priority – makes sense doesn’t it?
To set the scene then, whilst working as a Counter Fraud Consultant in Essex for Thurrock Council (what is it with you and #Furrok? – Ed) one late November afternoon I was sat going through a host of new cases my gaffer had dropped on my desk, the usual run of the mill naughty people who appeared to be claiming benefits and ‘forgetting’ to tell the authorities that boyfriend had moved in, Tax Credits had been awarded, wages had gone up and so on, when this pearl of a referral caught my eye and went straight to the top of the ‘to do’ pile.
What I was looking at was an anonymous letter, presumably from a disgruntled friend or family member of the subject judging by the vast amount of detail it contained. The subject was a lady called Linda Terry who was the tenant of a Council flat in Tasmania House, Tilbury. She was in her mid 40’s, lived alone and received maximum Housing and Council Tax Benefits as well as further benefits from Department for Work and Pensions. I knew that this particular high rise is in a complex of three such blocks, all connected by walk ways, has a central concierge controlled entrance with excellent CCTV facilities throughout.
The letter writer alleged that Terry was working as a prostitute from her flat, with up to five or six gentleman callers each day, some of which were regulars. The letter listed a whole host of services she offered which are far too delicate for me to describe here, the prices she charged and how she operated. The informant also said she was registered with a website I had not heard of before (honest!) called ‘Adultwork’, where sex workers could set up a profile page to advertise their services and it told me the name she used and even directed me to her personal page.
That level of detail is like gold dust to an investigator in my position and so I started making some enquiries. I had a contact on the concierge staff at the complex who had assisted on other jobs there and they were able to partially confirm the informants’ story, so yes Linda Terry did have a lot of callers most days. I carried out the usual credit checks which established her bank account details and I made official requests for copy statements. I knew from experience that cases such as this are usually very difficult to prove as there is usually no audit trail, everything is usually cash in hand, so next came the difficult part…..
After discussing the case with my boss and getting the relevant form for ICT (in triplicate) signed by umpteen managers I was finally allowed access to the website in question. I searched for the given profile and sure enough there was Ms Terry in all her glory, listing her, ahem, services, prices, likes, dislikes, contact details and so on. I found that a client could book her through the page and the website would accept payment in the usual e-commerce fashion, took a commission and passed on payment to Ms Terry. She could also be booked through the site for paid webcam sessions and other services. So that was me kind of hoping those transactions would provide the audit trail and evidence I was looking for.
Whilst I was discussing the case with a colleague I was made aware that DWP Fraud had an investigator who specifically covered the sex industry and so I arranged to meet with him (I will call him Nick) and talk through the case. In the meantime the copy bank statements duly arrived and lo and behold there were credits going back quite some months from the Adultwork website! She had obviously been very busy indeed! When did she sleep? Nick and I had our meeting, discussed the evidence and made a plan best suited to the situation in hand. A quick call to the concierge established that Ms Terry still appeared to have many gentlemen callers each day.
So, that’s how I found myself stood on a landing of Tasmania House one afternoon with Nick and two Police Officers, one male/one female. At our earlier meeting Nick had called Ms Terry using the mobile number from the website saying he would be on business in the area on a particular date and she had been recommended to him as someone to visit for certain services, the appointment had been made, services and prices agreed.
While me and the Officers tucked ourselves away out of site on the landing Nick knocked her flat door. It was very quickly answered by the flirtatious Ms Terry herself, dressed appropriately (or inappropriately you could say) and she invited her ‘punter’ Nick inside. It was at this point the Officers, lead by the female officer, and I quickly introduced ourselves and Nick revealed his professional identity and we were all ‘invited’ inside. She was immediately cautioned and Nick and I interviewed her after asking her to get properly dressed. She made a full and frank confession that she had been working as a prostitute from the flat for over a year, admitting that as well as the website derived income she had ‘earnings’ of around the same amount in cash in hand transactions for similar services. As well as our interview that day she was given advice from the Police Officers regarding her chosen profession.
And that is why Linda Terry found herself in front of Essex Magistrates on 5th August 2010 charged with a number of benefit fraud related offences totaling over £11,000.00. She pleaded guilty to the offences and was given a four week jail sentence suspended for 12 months, plus costs and of course repayment of the £11,000.00 she had fraudulently claimed.
It’s a fact that cases like that one don’t come around too often, I guess there are few 45 year Council tenant prostitutes living in, and fraudulently claiming benefits from, high rise blocks across the land. But the case of the “Tilbury Hooker”, as the press labelled her, does highlight an often ignored area of possible benefit fraud. With the advent of sites like Adultwork and others, the income gained by those in this area of business can be quantified and those involved can be brought before the courts.
FraudBloke is a Fraud Manager and Investigator, PINS and PINS(M) qualified, who has almost 25 years’ experience of identifying, investigating and prosecuting individuals who falsely claim benefits or commit Tenancy Fraud and Corporate Fraud.
Follow FraudBloke on Twitter: @FraudBloke