A MAN who netted £500,000 by fleecing 16,000 people in a nationwide work-from-home fraud was jailed yesterday - and he and his wife could have their home confiscated by the court.

Richard Alderson, 32, and his wife, Alison, 35, of Briarhill, Chester-le-Street, County Durham, advertised nationwide for home workers to fill envelopes for mail order firms.

They pledged to pay £60 per hundred envelopes.

But police believe that only two people out of 16,000 made enough from the work to recover their initial payment.

And when workers rang to complain they found themselves talking on a premium rate £1-a-minute phone line.

Their victims included a woman of 84, a bride saving for her wedding, and a single mother on benefits of only £70-a-week, said Graham Reeds, prosecuting at Teesside Crown Court.

Alderson, 32, drove a Porsche and told his bookkeeper that he always wanted to be a millionaire.

He and his wife were arrested after Durham trading standards officers and police received complaints from unemployed people from the Shetland Isles to Cornwall, who sent as much as £35 to register for the work-from-home scheme.

The Aldersons ran ten companies from accommodation addresses in Newcastle, Darlington, Stockton, King's Lynn, Ashton-under-Lyne, Chesterfield, Bournemouth, Hyde, in Cheshire, Biggleswade, and London.

They included flats in Hartington Road, Stockton, and Inglewood Close, Darlington.

Neighbours thought the pair had won the National Lottery because of their lavish lifestyle, which included luxury holidays, expensive sports cars and paying people to carry out domestic chores.

The couple placed job adverts in local newspapers and people who replied were asked to send more money to one of their other companies, the court was told.

They even netted £94,000 because the telephone numbers people rang to complain were £1-a-minute premium rate lines.

When police raided the headquarters of AR Enterprises in Chester-le-Street and Birtley, County Durham, in April 2000, they found a bin-liner stuffed with complaint letters.

Yesterday, the Aldersons pleaded guilty to conspiracy to defraud members of the public between May 1, 1998, and December 31, 2000, by offering employment subject to the payment of a registration fee when there was no intention to provide such employment.

Judge George Moorhouse told them: "It is quite clear that the fraud in which you were involved generated huge sums of money."

Richard Alderson was jailed for three-and-a-half years after admiting he devised the scheme which was implemented by his wife.

Alison Alderson was given a two-year jail sentence suspended for two years.

The Crown will apply to have the couples' home confiscated at a court hearing in July.

No evidence was offered against Darren Alderson, 25, of Hollycrest, Chester-le-Street, who was found not guilty of the conspiracy charge.