A LOAN agent for a finance company forged the signatures of customers to pocket thousands of pounds for himself, a court heard.

Father-of-five Jason Simms told police after his fraud was uncovered in July that he was short of money and had lots of bills to pay.

The 35-year-old avoided a prison sentence yesterday after a judge heard that he is paying back his former employers in Stockton.

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Judge Peter Armstrong imposed a 12-month community order with 100 hours of unpaid work and Probation Service supervision.

The judge told Simms, of Beaconsfield Road, Stockton: "You have lost your job and you have lost your good name.

"Your criminal record may cause difficulties as far as future employment is concerned. At least you have got work at the moment."

Julian Gaskin, mitigating, told the court that Simms is earning £100 a week as a delivery driver to help pay back what he stole.

The loans amounted to £4,500 while his float was £1,000 short and further amounts - taking the total to £7,857 - were missing.

Mr Gaskin told the court that there were "issues with gambling" and Simms was motivated by financial problems in the household.

"He loses his good name," Mr Gaskin told Judge Armstrong. "He is thoroughly ashamed of himself.

"He would ask that he be given some supervision if at all possible because he would like some assistance to manage his finances do it doesn't occur again."

The court heard that Simms had worked for Shopacheque in Stockton for nine months before his dishonesty came to light.

He admitted six charges of fraud between June 8 and July 30 and asked for a further 11 counts to be taken into consideration.

Judge Armstrong told him: "There are many people who are finding life difficult as far as their finances are concerned.

"Fortunately, the vast majority don't turn to crime to assist their problem . . . I am satisfied you are genuinely ashamed. This was a breach of trust."