A Polish gang which trafficked more than 200 people to the UK as part of a multi-million pound benefit fraud has been busted following a joint investigation by the Metropolitan Police, Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (HMRC) and the Polish police.
The two-year operation Wednesday culminated in 29 people being arrested in Poland and five addresses searched in London, resulting in two arrests. Searches were also carried out in Birmingham.
"These vulnerable victims were trafficked here to be exploited and satisfy the greed of these criminals. They were brought here under the impression they were getting a job but were left with nothing, with many ending up on the street," said Kevin Hyland, Detective Inspector from SCD9, in a statement.
Uniformed Polish police officers joined officers from the Human Exploitation and Organised Crime Command (SCD9), Territorial Support Group (TSG) and local officers to search addresses in south and east London for further evidence.
The search warrants coincided with police in Poland arresting suspected members of the gang as they gathered for a wedding. "The complex international dimension to this inquiry meant that it was vital to have a close relationship with the Polish authorities, which is why they joined us on this operation today," Hyland said.
"These arrests are the first step in these victims getting justice in their home country and have prevented more money being stolen from the public purse," he said.
Inquiries found the gang, based in Poland, promised at least 230 victims - many of whom had alcohol or mental health problems - work in the UK. They then brought the victims to stay in various addresses in this country and tricked them into signing papers to open bank accounts.
The criminals then fraudulently applied for Tax Credit and other benefits using the victim's details and got the money paid into the newly created accounts. The money was emptied from the accounts by gang members and sent back to the ringleaders in Poland while the trafficked victims were left destitute.
However, it is believed that the scam has cost the UK more than £2million. "During this operation, HMRC investigated over 230 Tax Credit awards with a value in excess of £2,000,000. We suspect the claims have been submitted by a criminal gang trafficking people who have then acquired their victims' identities to commit fraud in the UK," said John Pointing, Assistant Director at HMRC's criminal investigation wing, in a statement.
Commenting on the arrest, Police Major Monika Sokolowska from the Central Unit for Trafficking in Human Beings, Poland, said: "This form of trafficking is a new phenomenon in Poland at this present moment. In the past we were used to dealing with cases where people were trafficked for prostitution or for slavery but this new form of trafficking is becoming ever more prevalent."
"This is a big case for us with over 200 statements taken from vulnerable witness who were exploited. These people were trafficked to the UK by criminals and did not receive any of the social benefits that were fraudulently claimed in their name. This has been an ongoing case working with officers from the MPS and other partner agencies, and much has been achieved today because of the partnership work involved," she added.
Most of the victims are now back in Poland and have been supported by the Polish authorities.