FRAUD-BUSTERS in the New Forest are piling up hundreds of thousands of pounds in their battle to crack down on benefit fiddlers.

A new report on New Forest District Council's benefit fraud team has revealed that it clawed back a record £400,000 last year in money illegally claimed.

And the team is maintaining its drive towards the magical half-a-million figure with another increase this year. "Our target was set at two per cent, but the projected increase for this year is around five per cent, which should take us up to about £425,000," said audit manager Steve Cranston.

He explained that the benefits in question were housing rent rebates paid to people living in council-related properties, rent allowances for people in homes owned by the private sector and council tax benefit fraud. Fraudulent claims often involve people who fail to declare that they are in employment, or people living with a working partner.

More recently there have also been cases of people not declaring pensions. The report confirmed that the government has embarked on a national campaign to reduce benefit fraud.

This type of crime is estimated to cost the nation between £2 billion and £5 billion each year.

Mr Cranston, who leads the New Forest team, appealed to people with information on the fraudsters to contact the benefit information hotline on 0800 085 1637.

Underlining the experience of the Forest fraud fighters, the report pointed out that its investigations officer had 30 years' experience with Hampshire Police, including 20 in CID and five in the Hampshire fraud squad.

Its fraud liaison officer previously worked for the Benefit Agency and Employment Agency.