Leeds City Council officer jailed for heir hunting scam

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A rogue council officer has been jailed for abusing her position to make up to £160,000 moonlighting with her own heir hunting business.

Deborah Cook, 39, also stole the credit card belonging to a woman who had died without leaving a will and spent £17,000.

Cook was jailed for 16 months yesterday after pleading guilty to misconduct in a public office, fraud and two offences of theft.

Leeds Crown Court heard Cook worked as a finance officer for Leeds City Council for 11 years and was responsible for dealing with cases of people who had died intestate and had no traceable next of kin.

Her role involved working alongside a social worker to try to find family members and seize documents or valuables of the deceased to prevent loss or theft. Nigel Wray, prosecuting, said in cases where no next of kin could be can be traced, Cook, was responsible for passing details to the Treasury, which publishes a list of people who have died intestate.

The list is then obtained by heir hunting companies around the country who trace a next of kin in exchange for a percentage of the estate.

In October 2010 Cook set up a company called Heir Solutions Ltd without telling her bosses at Leeds City Council and failed to complete a declaration of interest form.

She then abused her position with the local authority by hiding documents and failed to pass information to the Treasury in a bid to get a “head start” on other heir hunting firms in competition with her to trace a next of kin.

The deception came to light in May last year when she was arrested on suspicion of fraud after she was linked to a suspected scam in which £17,000 was stolen using the credit card of a woman who had died in Bardsey, Leeds.

Mr Wray said: “It is a very serious breach of trust. not only in respect of her employer but the public generally. It is akin to insider trading because she is getting a head start.”

The court heard Cook, of Beaumont Street, Wakefield, made between £40,000 and £160,000 from the business.

Graham Parkin, for Cook, said the mother of three was suffering from depression at the time of the offences as a result of financial pressures.

He said Cook resigned from her job with the council when the deception became clear.

Jailing her, His Hon Mr Justice Cooke said: “The level of criminality is so serious that only an immediate custodial sentence will suffice.”

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