A FUGITIVE couple wanted on fraud and sex charges are believed to have fled to Australia using false passports.
Kiwi Paul Bennett and Australian partner Simone Wright travelled the length of New Zealand evading authorities, before disappearing four months ago.
Police say the trail has gone cold but a private investigator hunting the couple has tracked them to Australia - and believes they used false identities to get out of the country.
It's the third time in as many weeks that criminals have ducked authorities to leave the country after the escapes of runaway killer Phillip John Smith and Kris Willoughby, who had been released from prison after a drug conviction.
Bennett, 51, and Wright, 37, are wanted after allegedly swindling a southern helicopter firm out of $250,000. The couple, who boast links to Hollywood A-lister Russell Crowe, are also wanted in connection with a historic sex attack on a young girl.
"We have not been able to locate them and we're unaware of their current location," said Detective Senior Sergeant Craig Farrant, although he said they had not left the country using any known aliases.
Frustrated by police failure to capture the wanted couple, millionaire businessman and director of HeliPower Mike Jacomb has joined forces with a major Australian helicopter firm to hunt the pair down.
And he has increased a bounty to capture Bennett and his former television celebrity partner to $50,000.
Jacomb told the Herald on Sunday fresh information from electronic sources put the pair in Australia, where Bennett once held down a job as film star Crowe's helicopter pilot - despite not having a licence.
"He's just starting to show an electronic signature which is showing he's abroad," said Jacomb.
"At the moment we've got two areas of significant interest."
Jacomb said the electronic signature was in the form of emails believed to be from Bennett that could reveal an IP address and pinpoint a geographical area.
Jacomb said he was following information that Bennett was now setting up home in Melbourne and holding down a $3500-a-month job in the aviation industry.
He had been told by a private investigator in Australia the couple had fled New Zealand on new passports issued under false names.
Jacomb, who lost money in a helicopter purchase scam involving false bank and email accounts and invoices, said he wanted the couple brought to justice.
"I'm prepared to put up the ante to $50,000. I have an intense dislike for scumbags."
A Customs spokeswoman did not want to comment on alert details in case it compromised their operation.
"If police or other agencies have placed an alert in our system we will stop the traveller at the border.
"Customs will respond according to alert instructions."
After being informed of Bennett and Wright's departure, Labour's Customs spokesman Rino Tirikatene said the couple's escape further highlighted "gaping holes" in New Zealand's border security.
"There are supposed to be risk-profiling and checks and balances at the border, and those don't appear to be working," he said.
"There is a gaping hole in our border agency.
"We need to be calling on the Government for some sort of urgent inquiry into this."