A FRAUD hotline has been set up in Wirral offering people £5,000 to "shop" compensation cheats.

The hotline, one of the first of its kind in England, is the latest move by the borough to target fraudsters who make false or exaggerated claims linked to falls and accidents.

The decision to use information from the public as evidence in court against compensation cheats was prompted by the costs of claims rising by more than 200% in recent years.

The rise in claims also saw the council's insurers increase the amount the authority has to pay, with the final cost reaching £5,676,000 in 2003-4, a rise of 212% compared with 1998-99.

Ian Coleman, Wirral Council Director of Finance, said: "Insurance fraud against the council is not a victimless crime - it is taxpayers who pick up the bill.

"That is why we are committed to tackling this issue and the groundbreaking Report Fraud hotline & Reward Scheme will help us drive down the number of fraudulent claims."

A recent survey by Alarm (The National Forum for Risk Management in the Public Sector) found 33% of all claims may be fraudulent or exaggerated.

Mr Coleman added: "Through our tough stance on compensation claims, Wirral Council already repudiates nine out of 10 highways-related claims and we will continue to strive to eliminate fraud in all forms."

Last year, Wirral saw a 66% fall in the number of compensation claims from people saying they have been injured after tripping on pavements.

The dramatic decrease came as the authority established a winning reputation in the courts fighting claims.

Claims hotspot areas across the borough have also been mapped and closely monitored by inspectors.

Wirral Council has so far reduced the level of claims made each month from more than 170 in late 2002 to around 40 in 2005.

Savings from this are expected to exceed £2m a year.

Inspection regimes have also been reorganised, priorities for road repairs are now assessed differently, and there is a new council policy for replacing paving flags with Bitmac.

Merseyside Police's Fraud Squad has backed the council, and Det Sgt David Coulthard said they would work with Wirral to identify any people who make false claims and prosecute when able.

More than 140,000 Wirral households will receive leaflets publicising the new number with their 06/07 council tax bill.

The hotline centre can be contacted on 0800 328 9270.