A COUPLE who plundered nearly £40,000 in benefits by setting up a bogus claim have walked free from court.

Toni Smith, 35, got income support and housing benefit after saying she was a single woman, when in reality she was living with long-term partner Andrew Verlander, 42.

Verlander even wrote a letter claiming Smith, the mother of his child, was just a lodger so they could get their hands on £280 a month housing benefit.

But after hearing how the couple’s nine-year-old son has heart problems, a judge at Swindon Crown Court decided not to jail them.

Rosie Collins, prosecuting, said the couple had lived together in Portsmouth, claiming benefits as a couple, until July 2004, when they moved to Swindon.

In July 2004, Verlander sold their home in the city for £144,000 and bought a house in Newbury Drive, Freshbrook, for £132,000.

Within a few days Smith went to sign on to get income support saying she was a single woman renting a room from a family friend called Andy Steele.

To back up her application ‘landlord’ Verlander wrote a letter in the name of Steele saying it was a business relationship and he charged her £280 a month in rent.

In 2012 it was discovered that Verlander and Steele were the same person and an investigation was started. When Smith was questioned she initially lied but later accepted her partner had put her up to making the claim.

Verlander told investigators he used to be called Steele but had changed his name, and insisted they were not a couple and that he didn’t much like her.

As a result of the deception Smith received £23,915.52 in housing and council tax benefits and at least £13,763.05 in income support.

Smith pleaded guilty to two counts of making a false representation to obtain benefits and Verlander to producing a false document to obtain benefits.

Alex Daymond, for Smith, said she had been a heroin addict as a younger woman. After coming to Swindon they started the deception because they were short of money. In 2005, they had a son who has heart problems.

Mr Daymond said none of the money was spent on luxuries, just day to day living.

Rob Ross, for Verlander, said that following the recent death of his mother, he had received a large inheritance which meant he could repay all of the £37,678.57 they were not entitled to.

Passing sentence, Recorder Nick Rowland said: “There is a feeling in some quarters that these sort of offences are victimless, when it comes to benefit fraud.

“It is quite the opposite, the victims of behaviour like yours is the honest tax payer.”

He imposed eight month jail terms suspended for two years and told them to do 250 hours of unpaid work. He also ordered Verlander to pay £37,678 in the next 28 days or get a one year jail term and pay £1,000 costs.