BENEFIT cheats have stolen millions from taxpayers across the region in the past three years.
More than £10million has been taken from North councils in the last three years, including £1.4million from Sunderland.
Prosecutions, other penalties and cautions increased as unemployment rose and families were forced to tighten their belts.
However, in many cases the money is difficult to recover because offenders are living on small incomes.
Although courts can order benefits to be paid back, common rates of £10 to £12 a week mean it would take years to wipe the slate clean.
The missing £10million includes housing benefit and council tax relief cheated from taxpayers.
Cash-strapped councils are working closely with other government bodies to detect fraud, and thousands of investigations have been mounted by local authorities to track down offenders.
Across the region, the Citizens’ Advice Bureau says many inquiries it gets are from unemployed people with spiralling debts, who want help filling in housing benefit forms.