Belfast Telegraph

Friday 22 August 2014

'Agoraphobic' benefits cheat jailed

A woman wrote books including travel guides while claiming to be too ill to leave the house, a court heard

An agoraphobic woman who travelled the world while on benefits has been jailed.

Tracy Johnson claimed to be so unwell that she could not leave her own house.

Yet her trial heard the 52-year-old mother of one enjoyed a "champagne lifestyle" while writing travel guides, cookbooks and steamy novels while falsely claiming benefits of around £50,000.

As well as a four-month stint in India, Johnson enjoyed shopping sprees in New York and Madrid.

A court also heard she spent six months working in sunny Argentina as a tour guide while receiving cold winter payments.

And the day after telling benefits officials she could not walk more than 16ft (5m) without help, Johnson went on a two-day trip to central London.

Earlier this month, a jury at Merthyr Crown Court convicted the defendant of 13 charges - including fraud, dishonestly making a false representation, and dishonestly failing to notify a change in circumstances between January 2008 and July 2012.

And today Recorder Andrew Grubb jailed Johnson for one year.

Andrew Penhale, of the Crown Prosecution Service, described the fraud as one of the worst he had ever seen.

He said: "Tracy Johnson plotted a blatant fraud against the public purse.

"She used taxpayers' money to fund a lavish, globetrotting lifestyle, all the while exploiting a system designed to support society's most vulnerable citizens.

"Ms Johnson claimed more than £1,000 per month in benefit payments over five years, when in truth she was spending the majority of her time either travelling or working abroad.

"Not only did Ms Johnson travel the globe while claiming she was 'a prisoner in her own home,' but she also ran her own tour guide company in South America and earned money working as a wedding photographer.

"In 2011 she even authored a book entitled 'Last Tango in Buenos Aires', detailing her experiences as an English woman living in Argentina.

"Making a false claim to suffer from anxiety, depression and agoraphobia undermines those who do genuinely suffer from these debilitating conditions.

"This is one of the worst examples of benefit fraud that we have seen."

Among the overwhelming evidence prosecutor Joanna James brought before the jury were several posts Johnson had made on social networking sites.

One of her Facebook posts read: " I am one spoilt girl. Early lunch in the Himalaya Spa. Lunch here would be two weeks' wages in India."

She also went on to describe Buenos Aires as "magical - like a new lover".

And her bank statements showed a six-month period where large sums of money was withdrawn from cash machines in Argentina - but not a single transaction occurred back in the UK.

Johnson had claimed someone in the South American country had copied her card - while she had remained totally bed-ridden at her mother's in Builth Wells, mid Wales.

She also insisted transactions at stores including Ann Summers, lingerie outlet Victoria's Secret and a luxury bedding firm had been made by her teenage son.

Department for Work and Pensions senior fraud investigator Chris Beedle said his team was committed to cracking down on a minority who tried to "play the system"

"The brazen nature of this fraud has clearly shocked the public, but this cheat's journey has come to an end with a prison sentence," he said.

"Benefits are there to support the most vulnerable in society - not line the pockets of those who see welfare as a passport to a better lifestyle.

"I want to thank the team of investigators who put in the hard work to secure the right result for the taxpayer."

Latest News

Latest Sport

Latest Showbiz