A CRIMINAL gang suspected of operating a sophisticated benefit fraud scam worth £4.6m were targeted during simultaneous police raids in Govanhill.

Operation Arnos involved more than 100 Police Scotland cops and officers from multiple Government agencies including the Department of Work and Pensions, HM Revenue & Customs and Home Office immigration control.

Early morning raids were carried out yesterday in several businesses and homes in the Govanhill area and elsewhere in the South Side.

Sixteen people were arrested and cannabis plants worth £200,000 were seized. Thirty-seven premises were raided.

Fourteen of the arrests were on suspicion of offences ranging from benefit fraud, mortgage fraud to money laundering and involvement in organised crime. One woman was arrested on warrant and another was arrested in connection with a cannabis cultivation.

Police said the first phase targeted members of the crime gang while the second focused on the facilitators.

The force also said the operation was the biggest carried out since the inception of Police Scotland.

Assistant Chief Constable Gillian MacDonald, of Crime and Public Protection, said: “What we believe to have been happening in the area is that an organised crime group have essentially been preparing a fraudulent scheme which enables individuals to claim benefits to which they are not entitled.

“They have been, as we understand it, providing documentation which is false. Providing information round about employment which doesn’t exist in some cases. Essentially providing a package of information that enables an individual to make a benefits claim and be successful in getting money from the UK benefit system that they are not entitled to.”

The Evening Times accompanied cops on two raids. A search was carried out on a home in the city’s South Side while an office in Govanhill’s Allison Street also received a visit from officers.

The force was told of the fraud after staff at the Department of Work and Pensions became suspicious.

It is believed that the fraudsters have been carrying out their operation from a car, which acts as a mobile office, and a business in the Govanhill area.

ACC MacDonald said: “I think this operation really shows the benefit and power of multi-agency working.

“Colleagues from the benefit agency, who are very much part of our multi-agency task and delivery group at Gartcosh, identified what they believed to be fraudulent activity and they brought that to the partnership table.

“That enabled all the partners to start working together to understand what was going on. From there we have been able to develop not only intelligence but evidence of criminal activity in the area which has culminated in the ability to seek warrants. That allows us to search premises and arrest people on suspicion of a whole range of crimes and offences.”

The criminal gang involved in the benefit fraud are of different nationalities. Prior to the raids, leaflets were prepared in a variety of languages to inform people in the area of the action carried out by Police Scotland.

Police Scotland hope that the raids carried out will help them understand exactly how the fraud has been carried out.

ACC MacDonald said: “We anticipate that we will obtain evidence of just exactly how the fraud is being perpetrated. The organised crime group, who are behind it, are undoubtedly benefitting financially from the fraud given the scale of it.

“We are talking fraudulent activity to the tune of over £4 million. The individuals who are carrying out the transactions will be benefitting too but to a far lesser degree.”

She added: “Govanhill is probably the most diverse community in Scotland. There are over 50 languages currently spoken. What we will find is a range of nationalities involved in our executive action. There will be indigenous Scots migrants and second generations individuals who have been in the community for years as well. “

Detective Inspector Brian Gallagher, of the National Human Trafficking at Gartcosh, also helped with the operation and advised officers to look out for signs of victims of modern-day slavery. He said that there was no evidence, prior to the operation, of human trafficking being an element of this scam.

He added: “The difficulty with human trafficking investigations is it sometimes sits underneath the main criminality which is involved. That is why we are preparing our officers to have that knowledge.”

The area commander Chief Inspector Ross Allan provided support to the operation by lending his local problem solving team who have specialist knowledge of the Govanhill area.

He said: “It is really valuable to have our local officers involved, they are part of that community as well.

A number of my local problem solving officers have really specialist knowledge of Govanhill that will be of benefit to our partners.”

After a day of action, the officers will have to continue their investigation but it is hoped that their crackdown on the criminal gang will interrupt their operation.

ACC MacDonald said: “The scale of this benefit fraud is over £4m - that has a huge impact on the UK benefits system.

“While that is the visible element of it, there could be lots of other criminality that is ongoing involving these people.

This money can provide the opportunity to get involved in all sorts of other criminality so it is really important that we put a stop to it.

“It is also impacting on the tax payer who contributes out of their income every month. It is not fair that this money which would otherwise be used for public services is being used in this way.”