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£108k benefits fraudster thrown behind bars over secret apartment

£108k benefits fraudster thrown behind bars over secret apartment

Friday 05 August 2022

£108k benefits fraudster thrown behind bars over secret apartment

Friday 05 August 2022

A woman who fraudulently claimed almost £110,000 in benefits - despite owning a €99,000 apartment in Madeira - has been sentenced to 15 months' imprisonment.

Sentencing Maria do Carmo Fernandes de Freitas, Lieutenant-Bailiff Anthony Olsen told her: "Let us not mince our words: you repeatedly lied. Your claim was dishonest from day one."

53-year-old de Freitas, who has lived in Jersey for 22 years, was never entitled to any pay-outs because she owned property in Madeira - something she repeatedly failed to declare over a period of seven years, resulting in her wrongfully receiving £108,279.94 in Income Support.

According to the prosecution, when de Freitas first applied for the means-tested allowances in April 2012, one of the questions on the form asked whether she owned any land or property anywhere in the world.

She said she didn’t, when in fact she had an €99,000 apartment in Funchal. 

Following a tip-off in 2019, the Social Security Department began investigating and once again asked de Freitas if she owned any property. This time she told them she had, but that that was no longer the case. Once again, it was a lie.

royal court

Pictured: De Freitas was sentenced in the Royal Court this morning.

Further letters from the department to de Freitas aimed at getting to the bottom of the story went unanswered. Finally, in June 2019, after seven years of pay-outs, the department stopped paying her. Shortly after that, she was arrested and admitted the fraud.

Since then, she has been trying to pay back the money. 

Her defence lawyer, Advocate Rui Tremoceiro, told the Royal Court de Freitas is the main breadwinner in the family. Her partner can only find work on an occasional basis because he needs to make regular trips to Madeira to look after his seriously ill mother.

De Freitas works 12-hour shifts, from six at night until six in the morning, five days a week, and since owning up to the fraud has voluntarily been paying the Social Security Department back £800 a month - almost all the money she earns. 

Despite this, the size of the fraud means it would take her almost a decade to complete her payments. Although she had initially refused to sell her property in Funchal, she now told the court, in an attempt to settle things as quickly as possible, she had had a change of heart.

According to Crown Advocate Lauren Hallam, de Freitas’s crime was a "substantial fraud" and she should go to prison for two years not just because of the size of the theft but to deter others from "making false claims in the current economic climate".

But her defence lawyer, Advocate Tremoceiro, told the court de Freitas should be spared prison. He told the court there were exceptional circumstances. She did not use the money to fund an extravagant lifestyle, and that there was a genuine need for extra cash to cover food and accommodation.

Summing up, the Lieutenant-Bailiff told de Freitas she only seemed to "accept limited responsibility" for what she had done, and that her remorse was "questionable".

He went on to say: "The message must go out that those committing fraud will face an immediate custodial sentence unless there are exceptional circumstances."

In de Freitas’s case, he could see no exceptional circumstances, although, as an "act of mercy" aimed at helping the family, he was only imposing a 15-month sentence.

Following the sentencing, Dave Auffret, Senior Manager for Pensions and Care said the case "illustrates that any illegal activity regarding benefit entitlement is taken extremely seriously and can carry custodial sentences."

He continued: "We’re calling on the public to let us know if they suspect anyone of making fraudulent claims to obtain income support or any other benefit. Their identity will always be protected, whether the allegation is found to be true or not."

Deputy Malcolm Ferey, Assistant Minister for Social Security, added: "These are not victimless crimes, as the whole community loses when fraudulent claims such as these are perpetrated.

"I believe that the strong message here is that people who commit these crimes are highly likely to be caught and will then face the consequences of their misguided actions."

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