THE mastermind of a large-scale benefit fraud is facing a lengthy prison sentence after today (Monday, April 29) pleading guilty to orchestrating the conspiracy.

Sam Smith recruited a string of people to make bogus claims for crisis loans - claiming to be homeless and needing money for a deposit on accommodation.

The 25-year-old used the details of those he targeted to call the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to illegally pocket more than £12,000.

The cohorts then collected their crisis loan cheques and were accompanied by Smith to Post Offices where they were cashed - and he took his cut.

Smith again appeared at Teesside Crown Court via a live video-link from Exeter Prison, and admitted 20 charges of retaining a wrongful credit and fraud.

His barrister, Piers Norsworthy, again told a judge that he was terrified to return to the North-East and would prefer to appear on the link.

He will be sentenced at the same time as 22 others from Hartlepool for their parts in the scam which was smashed by government fraud-busters last year.

Mr Norsworthy asked Judge Peter Bowers if Smith could be dealt with during the day-long hearing - on a date to be fixed - from a room at the prison.

"He would not wish to be in a custodial setting in the North-East for reasons that he might meet with people he would rather avoid," said the barrister.

Smith slashed his wrists and needed 50 stitches after being told he was being moved, and bit the stitches out when he was well enough to be transferred.

He fled from the region after masterminding the crisis loan con, but continued it in Plymouth using the stolen identities of some of his earlier cohorts.

Twenty-one others have already appeared in court, and all of them admitted conspiring to defraud the DWP out of sums ranging from £240 to £475.

Another suspect, who was said by his barrister to be admitting the offence, was not present in court because he had a medical appointment for a leg injury.

Those who have pleaded guilty - all from Hartlepool - are: David Brack, 26, of Kelvin Grove; Stephen Hamilton, 43, of Rodney Street; Craig Anderson, 30, of York Road; Lindsey Brackstone, 30, of Heathfield Drive; Lee Hakansson, 22, of Parton Street; Shaun Lowery, 30, of Heathfield Drive; Eric Thompson, 53, of Ridley Court; Leon Robinson, 24, of Caithness Road; Jonathan Lord, 25, of Moffatt Road; Clare Rogan, 35, of Carrick Street; Jason Hewitson, 38, of Pine Grove; Jonathan Martin, 25, of Iber Grove; Darren Lowery, 29, of Monach Road; Stuart Williams, 20, of Eskdale Road; James Cockerill, 68, of Ridley Court; Terence Short, 31, of Newhome Court; Paul Winship, 34, of Kerr Grove; Lee McLouglin, 35, of Brierton Lane; Geoffrey Rowley, 54, of Thirlmere Street; Colin Slimmings, 52, of Rodney Street; and Stephen Stead, 40, of Hart Lane.

A summary of the case prepared for the court says Smith used his in-depth knowledge of the benefits system to swindle thousands of pounds of taxpayers' money.

Surveillance and camera footage from Hartlepool JobCentre and the town centre are said to show cheques being cashed at the Post Office and Smith collecting his cut.