TWO lead figures in a mail interception fraud targeting people living in mainly rural properties are beginning custodial sentences.

Raphael Munemo and Tendai Dlamini, who have previous convictions for mail theft, were jailed but three co-accused received suspended prison sentences for the prolonged and persistent scam, in which they took over the identities of their victims as far as banking and credit was concerned.

Durham Crown Court heard it involved the theft of postal delivered to properties with mail boxes away from homes, on fences and boundary walls, not directly attached to domestic properties.

Once the post was delivered gang members would gain entry to mail boxes and remove letters to establish the identities and other details of the targeted householders.

If they struck lucky, the mail thieves would intercept the delivery of newly dispatched credit and debit cards, containing PIN details.

Paul Abrahams, prosecuting, said properties in rural Teesdale, in County Durham, many of them farm houses, were among those specifically affected, but others were in the Boroughbridge and York area of North Yorkshire, and at Carlton, near Stockton.

Available credit was often quickly transferred onto high value gift cards as bank cards could be stopped at short notice.

The court heard the potential value of credit obtained by the gang amounted to £164,000, although not all was used, but Judge Ray Singh said this may only be, "the tip of the iceberg".

Although the banks largely withstood the loss, it had an initial affect on the victims, affecting credit ratings and at times they were taken aback to have card transactions cancelled, unaware their accounts had been compromised and drained.

Mr Abrahams said during the course of the investigation into the gang’s activities, conducted by the police North East Regional Special Operations Unit (NERSOU), “it became apparent there was a hierarchy.”

He said Munemo, 33, a Zambian national living in Centenary Close, Nottingham, appeared to be the “lead individual” who enjoyed the fruits of the crime on champagne stays at luxury hotels, including Headlam Hall, near Darlington, booking in using aliases.

Both Munemo, and 41-year-old Dlamini, a Zimbabwean refugee living in Brunswick Street, Wakefield, West Yorkshire, who has served a previous prison sentence for similar activity, denied conspiracy to defraud and fraud charges.

Both were convicted after a trial last week.

Read more: North East Police pledge to pursue 'cruel' fraudsters

Munemo was jailed for three years and a 12-month sentence was imposed on Dlamini.

Their three co-accused, all Zimbabwean nationals living in the UK, each admitted conspiracy to defraud at a plea hearing, last June.

Vincent Zwoushe-Zhanje, 31, of Banbridge, County Down, in Northern Ireland, was given a two-year prison sentence, suspended for two years, during which he must carry out 250 hours’ unpaid work, and take part in 30 probation-led rehabilitation days.

Gray Gwewo, 28, from Spencer Place, Leeds, and 27-year-old Ndhlovu, of Marks Close, Bedford, each received 14-month prison sentences, also suspended for two years.

Both must also complete 180 hours’ unpaid work and carry out 30 rehabilitation days with the Probation Service.

Judge Singh commended NERSOU investigation lead officer Suzie Hall and data analyst Helen Walker for their “impeccable” investigative work on the case.

He also awarded £250 from the public purse for Matthew and John McHail, who assisted police in following and tracking down of Dlamini, until police arrived to arrest him in a busy shopping complex.

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