The moment John Pomfrey understood the true extent of his wife’s deceit came when a policeman showed him her driving licence.
‘So what?’ he said. ‘Doesn’t everyone have one?’ The officer’s reply stunned him: ‘No — not if they’re blind they don’t.’
After 15 years of marriage, Christina Pomfrey’s supposed lack of eyesight came as a complete surprise to her husband. And that was just the start of it.
What would emerge is an extraordinary story of how, over the course of two decades, the 65-year-old grandmother cheated the taxpayer out of more than £1 million.
Grandmother Christina Pomfrey, 65, cheated the taxpayer out of more than £1 million over the course of two decades
Using two identities, and pretending to be both blind and suffering from multiple sclerosis, she had accessed pretty much every benefit under the sun — everything from income support, to housing benefit, to disability living allowance.
It meant, at one stage, Pomfrey was raking in a staggering £13,000 a month — giving her ‘earnings’ five time those of the average British worker. She wasn’t entitled to a penny of it.
Not that it stopped her enjoying the fruits of her ill-gotten gains. Pretending to her third husband she owned a string of newsagents, she blew the cash on clothes, cosmetic treatments and luxury Caribbean holidays.
Her deceit was only discovered in 2017 when she was finally put under surveillance by investigators from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).
They secretly filmed her driving, reading a newspaper and collecting her grandchildren from school.
Pomfrey admitted to what she did — only to launch another bogus claim while out on bail.
In court last month, she pleaded guilty to multiple counts of fraud, false accounting and making or supplying articles for use in frauds.
‘This was money to which you were not entitled,’ Judge Sophie McKone said as she sentenced Pomfrey to three years and eight months in prison.
‘You stole £1 million from your fellow citizens. Money which would have gone to people who justly deserved it. Money that could have gone to schools and hospitals.’
Pomfrey is far from alone. Figures this week show payments to benefits cheats and benefits paid in fraud and error soared by more than 20 per cent to a record £4.5 billion last year.
Or, put another way, enough to pay for 750,000 hip operations or build two big city hospitals.
Worst hit of all is Universal Credit, the new all-encompassing benefits payment introduced by the Tories. According to spending watchdog the National Audit Office, one pound in every ten claimed under it should not have been paid.
Christina Pomfrey’s benefit fraud, including pretending to be both blind and suffering from multiple sclerosis, came as a surprise to her husband John, 60 (pictured on holiday in Mexico in 2006)
More worrying still is the acknowledgement that things are going to get even worse this year.
Benefit officials have warned that, during the first weeks of the Covid crisis, as much as £1.5 billion may have been lost in fraudulent claims for Universal Credit as checks were relaxed to allow for swift payments.
‘Even before Covid, fraud and error was at an all-time high,’ Meg Hillier, the Labour MP who heads the Commons public accounts committee, warned the DWP.
‘It [the department] needs to do more to protect the taxpayer, including rapid identification and investigation of suspicious claims.’
Of course, it goes without saying that, for those in genuine need, the actions of the authorities to mitigate the impact of the lockdown could not have been more welcome.
Between March 1 and June 23, there were 3.4 million new Universal Credit claims. To deal with the huge demand, staff from across the DWP, including its fraud team, were moved to assist with the new claims.
At one stage, Pomfrey was raking in a staggering £13,000 a month — giving her ‘earnings’ five time those of the average British worker. She wasn’t entitled to a penny of it
To expedite claims, identity checks were dealt with online, rather than face-to-face, and some information was taken on trust, such as rent costs and self-employment status.
At the same time, hundreds of millions of pounds were paid out as advance payments, sometimes on the day of the application.
The opportunity for fraud has massively increased — with both individuals and organised crime gangs exploiting the Government’s urgent relief packages.
Naturally, the DWP insists it is doing all it can to ‘relentlessly pursue’ those abusing the system.
‘Our detection systems make use of increasingly sophisticated techniques to identify discrepancies and thwart those seeking to rip-off taxpayers,’ it says.
But, as stories of fraudsters going through the courts in recent months reveal, those ‘systems’ don’t necessarily work even at the best of times.
Take the case of Christina Pomfrey. She had her hand firmly in the public purse for years and years — from 2002 until January 2020.
During that time she claimed a total of £1,010,090.66 in incapacity benefit, income support, disability living allowance, employment and support allowance, social fund payments, housing benefit, council tax benefit, direct payments, independent living fund payments and Universal Credit.
Firstly, using her second husband’s surname, Brown, she claimed benefits from a council house in Runcorn.
Then, as Pomfrey, more handouts were claimed from her and her third husband’s Oldham bungalow.
She claimed to be single and with no other means of financial support. She said she needed help to ‘get out of bed, wash, dress, all domestic chores, shop, banking, going out and with every aspect of day-to-day life and need help to toilet, cook and prepare food and drinks’.
Pomfrey shamelessly used the details of family friends and relatives to claim they were providing care. All were unaware of this, and police discovered forged letters supposedly from them to the authorities at the Oldham house.
What is Universal Credit?
Universal Credit (UC) replaces six existing benefits – Income Support, Income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance, Income-related Employment and Support Allowance, Housing Benefit, Working Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit – with a single payment.
When was it introduced?
It has been rolled out gradually across the country after starting in pilot areas in 2013. New benefit claimants have been put onto the system, but from July 2019, around 2million people receiving the old benefits will be moved onto UC, which is due for completion in 2023.
Are there waits for payments?
UC is paid in arrears, and the first payment is not made until at least five weeks after a claim is lodged. Claimants can apply for advance payments to avoid hardship while they wait.
Why was it introduced?
Former Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey said that when UC is fully rolled out, it will deliver £8 billion of benefits to the UK economy per year.
Incredibly, throughout this period her latest husband, whom she married in 2005, was completely unaware of her deceit.
‘People think I must have known what she was up to and where all the money went, but the answer to both is I don’t have a clue,’ said 60-year-old Mr Pomfrey, speaking exclusively to the Mail. ‘She has destroyed my life and I cannot forgive her. She is the craftiest woman I have ever known.’
From the moment the couple met at a Seventies disco at a Butlin’s holiday in Skegness, Pomfrey made out she was rich — telling her husband-to-be she was a millionaire with seven newsagents dotted around Liverpool.
In reality, she worked in a newsagent’s — until she was sacked for stealing from the till — but kept up the pretence until December 2017.
‘Once I went over and met her at the shop just as she was locking up,’ said Mr Pomfrey. ‘She pulled the shutters down and said: “There, that’s the last one locked up for the night.” I never had a reason not to believe her. She looked the part, always well-dressed with immaculate hair.
‘She was bright and bubbly and everyone liked her because she passed herself off as kind and generous — she never asked me for a penny, right up until the end.’
And he added: ‘I fell for her because I was at a low ebb after my previous wife of 21 years left me for someone else. Tina told me she would look after me and that I should not worry about anything.
‘She even bought me an MG car just months after we met and, at the start, she paid for some of the holidays we went on in places like the Caribbean.
‘We went to the Dominican Republic four times, Madeira a few times or even just places like Benidorm. I insisted I wanted to pay half after the first couple of times. I now think she picked on me because I was another name, in another county, that she could use for her cons. I feel a fool.’
Quite how she fooled the DWP to believe all her medical and care needs is another question altogether.
Mr Pomfrey’s work as a water softener engineer meant he travelled across the country.
‘Sometimes she would call me and tell me not to come back because some important people from the council were visiting,’ he said.
‘It was only after I discovered she was keeping me out the way because a benefits assessor was visiting. She even [parked] around the corner so they would not see the car.’
Every Wednesday, Pomfrey would also insist on travelling to Runcorn alone. ‘She told me it was to look after her shops, but now I think someone was visiting her from social services and she had to be there to keep up the pretence,’ he said.
Neighbours there told the Mail they were astonished she had been able to get away with her scams for so long.
What finally tipped the DWP off is unclear but, in 2017, Pomfrey was placed under surveillance
‘We knew she was cheating the system but none of us knew by how much,’ one said this week.
‘A lot of people were angry with her when she got a huge extension on the back of her house because she was supposedly disabled. The kitchen was extended and there was a downstairs bedroom and wet room to cater for her “needs”.
‘I saw a wheelchair outside the house and I said, “what’s that for?” And she said, “because I need it”. I said, “well, you never use it!”
‘You could not believe the cheek of her. She was always driving around in big cars and never seemed short of a penny.’
What finally tipped the DWP off is unclear but, in 2017, Pomfrey was placed under surveillance.
She was filmed carrying out everyday activities unhindered by illness. That December, Pomfrey was duly arrested and the Oldham and Runcorn addresses searched.
The 65-year-old has been jailed for three years and eight months after falsely claiming over £1million in benefits
Among the letters found was one sent by a hospital to her husband about a long-standing eye injury, which she had manipulated on a computer. Mr Pomfrey was also arrested, on suspicion of money laundering and fraud.
‘They told me I was looking at ten to 15 years,’ he said. ‘They also asked me about my wife being blind. I said: “Blind? She was driving me around the other day.”’
As for his wife, she told investigators: ‘It’s a relief to be caught. I’ve had enough.
‘There has been no involvement with anyone else. My husband knew nothing about it. I have had all the money.’
No charges were brought against Mr Pomfrey. But investigators did find that, over six years, £90,000 of benefits claimed by his wife were paid into a bank account belonging to her daughter from her previous marriage, Aimee Brown.
Over that time, Brown, 34, kept almost £71,000. She was charged with money laundering, receiving an 18-month suspended jail sentence.
The court heard she was ‘hoodwinked’ by her mother.
As for Mr Pomfrey, he says he has discovered he too was defrauded by his wife who took out loans in his name and against his house.
The strain of the case has led to him losing his job and he says he is now fighting to stop his home being repossessed after he was left with debts of £180,000.
‘I cannot believe what an idiot I have been,’ he said.
‘Here I am, a man who has never had a credit card in his life, facing destitution.
Pomfrey (left) was sentenced alongside her daughter Aimee Brown (centre), who was handed a suspended jail sentence for laundering £80,000 of her mother’s ill-gotten gains. The pair are pictured outside Minshull Street Couty, Manchester, in June
‘When I think back over what she has done, it makes me sick. I have come to realise she basically had a full-time job conning me and everyone around her and I fell for it.’
When asked to comment, Will Quince, Minister for Welfare Delivery, says: ‘When we identify suspicious activity we take swift action to investigate and will relentlessly pursue perpetrators using the full range of our powers, including prosecution, to bring them to justice.’
He adds that Pomfrey’s sentence sends ‘a clear message to anyone attempting to cheat the system’.
Maybe, it won’t recoup any of the missing £1 million. A DWP investigation found she had no assets. So when Pomfrey emerges from prison she won’t be forced to pay back a single penny to the taxpayer.