Benefit fraud has become so common that investigators in Norfolk are recovering more than ?140,000 a month - with swindlers predicted to have stolen at least ?1.7 million by the end of the year.

Since April ?750,000 worth of fraud has been detected, with the county's fraud squad conducting an average of five new investigations every single day.

And the benefit cheats who are caught are just the tip of the iceberg, with the true figure stolen possibly much more than the ?1.7 million which is found and paid back.

The number of investigations carried out across the East of England is on the increase, but the amounts being discovered and paid back have fallen - with the Department for Work and Pensions arguing a change in attitudes to benefit fraud is helping to cut the crime.

In 2005-06, fraudsters cheated the system out of ?12 million in the East of England region, a fall from ?18 million the year before.

Investigations rose from around 23,000 in 2004-05, to 26,562 the following year.

The figures for benefit fraud in Norfolk are released as Great Yarmouth woman Maria Georgiou was spared jail after claiming benefits of more than ?15,000 despite having a similar amount in savings.

Georgiou, 44, of Nottingham Way, Yarmouth, will now have to pay back the DWP at ?11 a week - which at that rate will take more than 27 years.

Other examples of cheats who were caught, Lynsey Dye, of The Oaks, Rockland St Mary, who swindled more than ?34,000 in benefits over five years and Lingwood woman Wendy Sheldon, who claimed state benefits after he husband Alexis left her. But she failed to tell the authorities when he returned to their Chapel Road home and continued to claim ?17,000.

Richard Bacon, MP for South Norfolk, said he had particular concerns tax credits were easier than other benefits to claim fraudulently.

He said: ?It's good that there are benefit teams going round and checking up - most tax payers will be very glad to know that is the case.

?These people are stealing from other tax payers and taking money that doesn't belong to them. It's very difficult to try and figure out what the overall rate of fraud is - it's very, very substantial - many, many billions.?

From April to September this year, the DWP has carried out 51 prosecutions in Norfolk. In the same period last year there were 52 prosecutions and for the whole year, from April 2005, to March 2006, there were 83.

For the entire Eastern region successful prosecutions, cautions and sanctions remained steady at just under 2,000 for the last two years.

In Norfolk teams of investigators, who all are professionally trained and qualified, are based in Norwich, Great Yarmouth and King's Lynn - all particular hotspots for benefit fraud.

They conduct an average of 240 investigations each month, cross-matching information from across agencies or using covert surveillance methods.

Norfolk's fraud investigations manager Ian Hounslow said: ?Each case is dealt with on the individual circumstances of that case and we will then decide what action to take.?

This can include giving people a formal caution or an administrative penalty, instead of taking it as far as prosecution.

Administrative penalties mean fraudsters have to pay back an extra 30pc of the overpayment they received.

But no matter what action is taken - be it a prosecution which leads to jail or a merely a simple caution - the offender has to pay back 100pc of the overpayment - no matter how long it takes and in some cases, like Georgiou, it can take decades.

The DWP also takes steps through the courts to confiscate people's assets if they believe they have been bought with money from benefit fraud - and it is up to the offender to prove if they have legitimately paid for the assets.

Mr Hounslow said: ?We have access to a wide range of powers to investigate fraud - including asking for bank records and obtaining information from employers.

?We also work very closely with the local authorities in Norfolk because often if people are receiving income support they are also in receipt of other benefits, such as housing benefit.

?It's important to stress that our customers have the responsibility to notify them of any change in their circumstances.

?Benefit fraud used to be seen as a victimless crime, but attitudes have changed over the years and now people see that it is taking money away from those who most need it.

?The information we get from members of the public if vitally important and I would urge people to tell us if they know fraud is taking place.?

While a spokeswoman said it was impossible to estimate the full extent of fraud in Norfolk she said national benefit fraud has been slashed from ?2 billion in 2001 to its current level of ?0.9 billion.

Last year the Government announced a huge overhaul of incapacity benefit to make it tougher for people to exploit the system.

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