Predators are stealing entire family fortunes, conning the elderly and infirm out of billions in life savings. Here’s how they do it, and why they rarely get caught.
By Stefanie Cohen
The Trump officials gutting federal fraud protections never met John Hlywa, but they surely would have admired the guy. A World War II hero, he devoted his life to work and family, and his frugality was legendary. He might have been the stingiest penny-pincher in all of Michigan.
If he needed to bathe, Hlywa fetched rainwater from the pickle vat he’d set up near his barn. If he wanted wood for the stove, he’d retrieve some from the cellar using only his flashlight so as not to switch on a light and waste electricity. And when his wife Mariya, a Ukrainian immigrant like himself, required a ride to her English lessons, he was happy to drive her but insisted she pay him back for the gas.
“Who would do that?” asked his son, Stephen.
“Frugal is putting it nicely,” said his granddaughter, Julie.
Hlywa (pronounced huh-lay-wah) had reason to conserve. He’d grown up in the Carpathian mountains, fought Nazis in the resistance and twice escaped from concentration camps in Poland. When he came to the U.S., he held down two full-time jobs — as a Mack truck driver and a grinder, casting parts for a machine company. On the weekends, he built a three-bedroom ranch in Sumpter Township, about 15 miles east of Ann Arbor, digging out its basement by hand.
He never took a vacation and would sometimes excuse himself from Thanksgiving dinner to tend to properties he’d purchased with his savings, or the vegetable garden and pear and apple trees he’d planted at his home, which his children called “the farm.” “He was afraid we would have to grow our own food out there in order to survive,” said Stephen. “He thought he was in the Recession.”
So it was all the more remarkable that when Hlywa’s health began to fail from heart disease, he gave away his money by the fistful.
The recipient was the overseas family of Mariya Wintoniw, his second wife, whom he married in 2006 after his first wife died 13 years earlier. Hlywa abruptly annulled their pre-nup and transferred $340,000 to her children in Ukraine, at first in small increments but then $96,000 more in the last weeks of his life. When he died at 84 in 2011, there was almost nothing left to pass down to his own family members.
What they discovered was that Mariya had helped herself to his fortune.
She’d forged his signature, misspelling his given name of Iwan as “Iwa,” took control of his bank accounts and siphoned hundreds of thousands of dollars. Julie Hlywa, an attorney, uncovered the theft in 2010, a year when her grandfather was in and out of the hospital, finding that Mariya had cleaned out one of his accounts, removing $180,000, and signed a do-not-resuscitate order for her husband.
“She was taking money from under his nose,” she said.
“I thought we’d taken all the precautions ahead of time for dad and his estate,” said Stephen.
Stephen and his brother Nicholas filed suit, alleging undue influence. They cited their father’s well-documented history of parsimony. All told, they said, Mariya, a 74-year-old widow, had pilfered $550,000 of his cash during her five years of marriage to John and acquired the deeds to two of his six properties, including the family homestead. A jury awarded the brothers $499,414, assessing damages for fraud and unjust enrichment, but it didn’t matter. By the time of the verdict in 2014, most of the money was gone.
What happened to Hlywa occurs with alarming frequency across the country as plotters steal vast sums from rightful heirs, including families, friends and charities favored by the deceased, occasionally just before the person dies. A survey by MetLife estimated that victims, many of them elderly and infirm, are swindled out of $2.9 billion a year. Most inhertiance theft goes unpunished; just one in 44 cases gets reported, according to a study done by New York State. Prosecutors say they have a high success rate at trial, but many cases never make it that far.
“It is not an exaggeration to say that every family has been or will be affected by an attempted inheritance theft,” said Robert C. Adamski, an estate lawyer in Cape Coral, Florida, and author of “Inheritance Hijackers: Who Wants to Steal Your Inheritance and How to Protect It.”
“These thefts are widespread, and when they are discovered seldom revealed to those outside the small group of affected family members. It’s a quiet crime flying under the radar.”
Fraud is only part of the problem. The accused have been known to abuse their targets, coercing and lying to keep loved ones away and, in some cases, endangering their health by withholding medicine, clothing, bedding, food or water. Some who resist have been subjected to physical or verbal retribution.
Indeed, a 2016 study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention listed, in addition to financial exploitation, neglect and physical and emotional abuse as serious threats to those 60 years old or older, calling the various dangers they face a “public health issue.” New York geriatrics expert Dr. Mark Lachs told Bloomberg that victims, including those taken in by financial scams, die at three times the rate as those who aren’t exploited.
To be sure, inheritance thievery is not the only risk to one’s nest egg.
Seniors are under assault on various fronts: fake lottery schemes, threats from swindlers posing as IRS tax collectors; bogus requests to bail out a purportedly strapped friend or family member, among numerous other deceptions.
Then there is the guardianship system, an officially sanctioned danger, which operates with few checks and has allowed elderly victims to be forced from their homes and into assisted living facilities, their savings sapped by inflated or invented charges. It’s a problem that the New Yorker magazine chronicled in October and was featured on John Oliver’s show, “Last Week Tonight.”
But the lure of an under-the-radar inheritance heist is especially tempting, even more so now that the Trump administration and a leading Republican congressman are moving to slash federal regulations that help prevent financial chicanery.
High on Team Trump’s hit list is the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which they want to severely restrict, and the Labor Department’s fiduciary rule of 2016, which forces financial advisers to put the interests of their clients first when giving advice. The rule aims to curtail malfeasance by those who handle IRAs and other retirement accounts, and it’s currently on hold.
The CFPB, originally conceived as a way to rein in predatory Wall Street banks and mortgage providers after the subprime meltdown, expanded to take on debt collectors, credit card companies, auto lenders, and even for-profit colleges like Trump University — any organization that might take advantage of consumers, many of whom are elderly.
Its biggest success involved uncovering Bank of America’s massive fake-bank-account scheme, a ploy that ended with a $1 billion fine.
Yet CFPB interim head Mick Mulvaney — who previously advocated for the dissolution of the bureau — asked Congress to curtail his own agency’s authority by taking over its funding, requiring legislative approval for any rules and making the CFPB answer directly to the president. He also admitted to a management style that allowed only those who made campaign contributions to influence policy.
Meanwhile, Texas Republican Jeb Hensarling, chairman of the House Financial Services Committee and a deregulation crusader, has introduced a bill that would roll back many of the safeguards put in place on lenders following the financial crisis of 2007.
Experts believe that relaxed policing of institutions and service providers sends the wrong message to those tempted to target family estates. “Financial advisors are some of the worst offenders,” Adamski said. “Changing that regulation [the 2016 fiduciary rule] would potentially weaken the ability of people to safeguard their fortunes.”
Even without a regulatory rollback, fortune looting is on course to be a major growth industry for the criminally minded.
As more Baby Boomers age into senior citizens, their collective wealth continues to rise. Those 65 and up already possess two-thirds of the bank deposits in this country, says the American Banking Association, accounting for enormous savings that will be passed down to the next generation — a total of $100 trillion over the next two decades, according to one estimate.
Indeed, inheritance hijacking provides a rare opportunity for the resourceful scam artist: the chance to snag a six- or seven-figure windfall from a single target.
It’s not just that one score could set up a thief for life. Estate embezzlement is exponentially less risky than other felonies. A handgun isn’t necessary. The victim need not be tied up, gagged or maced. The main weapon, manipulation, is a subtle tool open to wide interpretation, making the challenge of sending culprits to jail a daunting one. Many in law-enforcement call it the perfect crime.
“There’s a low chance of being caught and a very high reward,” says Page Ulrey, a prosecutor who handles financial fraud cases in King County, Washington.
There’s certainly no secret to how it’s done. An anonymous blogger went so far as to spell out the elements in a post, imploring would-be crooks to “Get Rich on Other People’s Money” on StealAnEstate.com.
The twisted diatribe advises scoundrels to go after those who live alone or are terminally ill, ply them with alcohol, show a sincere interest in their well-being and always take their side in disputes with potential heirs. “You are so much better, smarter and deserving than they are,” it says. “You deserve the money.”
Cognitive impairment makes the crime all the easier. Those suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s are unlikely to realize what’s going on, and even if they are aware of ill intentions, can become dependent on abusive interlopers for day-to-day activities or even bond with them, Stockholm Syndrome-like. It is not uncommon for the defrauded to express shame at being taken in or having ignored obvious threats.
“Many older victims refuse to believe it’s happening because admitting it means dealing with losing their independence,” says Ulrey.
At about the same time that Hlywa was being manipulated out of his life savings, a different drama was playing out in California, where famed pianist Roger Williams woke up on the morning of Oct. 7, 2011, in pain. The celebrated performer, weakened from rounds of chemotherapy, lay on a reclining chair in the bedroom of his home in Encino, California, battling pancreatic cancer. It wasn’t going well.
The performer whose instrumental renditions of “Born Free” and “Autumn Leaves” earned him the title of “Mister Piano,” was gaunt, his skin pale and papery. In a raspy voice, the 87-year-old summoned health care provider Rosalia Prieto to his side and asked for something to ease his discomfort. “I don’t feel good, honey,” he whispered to her.
What happened next remains in dispute. But what’s clear is that later that day he signed papers that handed much of his formidable estate to his personal assistant, Jacquelyn Heebner, a widow who worked for the pianist in the last decade of his life.
A few hours after that, he died.
His stunned daughter, Alice Jung, alleged that her father, in a weakened state, was denied his pain medicine and arm-twisted into signing the papers, robbing her of her inheritance. She spent five years arguing her case in court.
“It was devastating and cruel,” said Jung, who accused Heebner of mismanaging his care, then forcing his hand so as to lay claim to his money. “It ripped my heart apart.”
Heebner contended that the signing of the papers was the end of a long-discussed arrangement between her and Williams, who during his life earned 18 gold and platinum albums, making him the top-selling piano recording artist in history. She alleged that Jung acted out of bitterness and entitlement. A settlement was finally reached in 2016, one that allowed Heebner to keep some of the funds outlined in Williams’s 11th-hour will but awarded Jung control of royalties from her father’s music catalogue.
Even so, Jung says her attempts to prove fraud drained her emotionally and financially. “It was a long and heartbreaking battle,” she said.
The mystery of what happened to Roger Williams in his final hours plays out time and again in this nation — end-of-life circumstances that can be maddeningly murky and difficult to sort out, particularly when an elderly family member changes a will or alters who gets which assets shortly shortly before dying.
Sometimes such a scenario ends with that person rewarding a good Samaritan who made their last years peaceful and happy. Sometimes it involves children resenting a late-in-life spouse they regard as a gold digger not entitled to share in their relative’s wealth, most famously in the case of Anna Nicole Smith, who was 26 when she married 89-year-old oil tycoon J. Howard Marshall. (Marshall, it turned out, excluded her from his will after all.)
There are also instances in which multiple family members fight for years over vast fortunes, such as with the estate of James “the Godfather of Soul” Brown, which remains in limbo 11 years after his death.
Many cases, however, involve criminal activity. And when that occurs, there is only so much that can be done to stop it or, after the fact, exact justice. Being rich or famous or surrounded by powerful supporters does not necessarily provide protection. In the infamous example of New York socialite Brooke Astor, her situation was quite the opposite.
Astor — who was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease and suffered from anemia, among other ailments — was under the supposed care of her son Anthony Marshall. But it was Marshall’s own son who revealed the truth: He had not provided for the elderly Astor and, instead, had allowed his mother to live in squalor, deprived of medicine and doctor visits, while enriching himself with income from her estate.
Lawmakers are sounding the alarm.
In 2016, U.S. Senators Susan Collins and Claire McCaskill published “Fighting Fraud,” a guide that identified the stealing of inheritable funds as among “the top 10 scams targeting our nation’s seniors.” A month later, when congressional leaders re-authorized the Older Americans Act of 1965, they added an initiative: combating financial exploitation.
Additionally, the Department of Justice under President Obama created a program to identify fraud schemes, with the goal of educating law-enforcement agents on the matter and achieving better results in prosecuting financial crimes against the elderly. That effort played a role in a DOJ crackdown in February, when the department announced the indictments of more than 250 accused crooks who allegedly stole some $500 million from seniors.
States are taking action, too. In 2015, Kamala Harris, then the California attorney general, unveiled an educational program with the state’s AARP chapter to protect aging citizens. Other states have been stepping up as well. Thirty-nine of them and the District of Columbia have addressed financial exploitation in some form, including enacting new laws and adding tougher penalties for offenders.
The added measures were spurred in part by crimes of con artists such as Yana Ristick and Michael Evans, a predator couple from a Roma gypsy community in Seattle who used the oldest trick in book — love — to con lonely older men. Relying on her petite physique and fake romantic interest, the duo gained the trust of potential targets to steal their hearts, then their savings.
If one category of perpetrator is the opportunist — a family member or caregiver who engages in the crime once — Ristick and Evans belong to the professional class, careerists who make their living through repeated, calculated rip-offs.
One of their big scores was Leon Lucas.
Prosecutors aren’t sure exactly how the grifters found him, but their plot began in 2012 when Evans approached Lucas at his house, where the retired widower had placed a for-sale sign in the window of a car in his driveway.
Lucas, 79, explained that his wife of 53 years had recently passed away and he wanted to sell her Cadillac Catera. Evans and another man who was with him and claimed to be his cousin asked if they could take the vehicle for a test drive. They offered to buy it, inquired about paying off the purchase price over time and gave Lucas $100 as a down payment, according to investigators. As they were leaving, the “cousin” snatched the title and car keys and simply drove off in the Catera.
Lucas wasn’t particularly worried; he was sure they would return and make good on their promise to purchase the vehicle. In any case, he didn’t know who they were or how to reach them. He didn’t call the police.
A few days later, however, Yana Ristick came to his house to make another payment. She gave Lucas $275 and chatted him up. He was an orphan — she said she was, too. He lost his spouse to cancer — so did she. The two became friendly. During one subsequent visit she revealed her dream. She wanted to buy a catering company. Knowing that Lucas had built a food-truck business before retiring, the slim brunette asked if he’d like to invest in her venture.
Over the course of months Lucas loaned her $300,000 to fund a startup and host a big event to kick off the enterprise. Only there was no catering company and no launch party took place. Nor did Lucas receive any more payments for his wife’s car.
He wasn’t their only victim.
There was also William Berry, an 86-year-old with dementia who accompanied Ristick to a BMW dealership, where she walked in and drove off with an X54 worth $75,919; and Clarence Peterson, an 86-year old widower with short-term memory loss, who met Ristick at a grocery store and eventually proposed marriage, giving her a $7,000 engagement ring, $20,000 for a luxury apartment rental she shared with Evans, who posed as her brother Vincent, and $30,000 for a bogus car dealership launch.
Cops finally caught up with the couple after a clerk at a Cartier store outside Seattle watched as Ristick aggressively picked out jewels while her companion, Bertram Stone, 91, stood by. The clerk told them to come back after Stone’s credit had cleared, then called police. The two were convicted of various charges in 2013 for defrauding Lucas; Ristick and Evans were both sentenced to seven years in prison.
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Despite that result, sending perpetrators to prison is far from easy.
Most district attorney offices don’t have dedicated units to handle frauds against the elderly. The cases frequently hinge on showing that a victim was impaired mentally when a will was changed or money transferred, which requires conclusive medical records or an expert’s evaluation of the person’s cognitive ability prior to any alleged crime.
But this is rare, so evidence must be gathered retroactively, a challenge given that dementia is difficult to detect in its early stages. Another hurdle: an unwitting gift may be the basis for a lawsuit but it’s generally not considered a crime.
To deal with this issue, prosecutor Paul Greenwood, head of the elder abuse unit in the San Diego County DA’s office, takes an unconventional tact: he calls impaired victims as witnesses, even if they can’t remember details or change their stories.
“But that’s the perfect person to put on the stand,” he said. “The jury will see first-hand that they didn’t have the capacity to consent to parting with their money.” Still, when his office gets a conviction, the sentence usually doesn’t involve much prison time. “It could be worth spending a year in a jail to steal that kind of money,” Greenwood noted.
Manhattan prosecutor Elizabeth Loewy, whose unit handled the Astor case, said such crimes are akin to violent felonies. “People think it’s a financial crime but it causes the victims to die earlier than they would,” she said.
Astor’s grandson, Philip Marshall, a leading advocate on this issue, agreed.
“In domestic abuse cases, people can advocate for themselves. In elder abuse, there’s no one. Elder abuse needs a narrative and a face, and my grandmother gave it a face.”
A complaint call fielded by Scott Dueser, president and CEO of First Financial Bank in Abilene, Texas, in 2014 created new hope for fraud victims.
On the line was the son of a longtime customer, and he was furious. His mother had been duped by a common ruse known as “The Jamaican Scam,” in which a con artist contacts an older person with news that they’ve won money in a sweepstakes, then requests upfront processing fees before handing over winnings.
The man said his mother lost her life savings, withdrawing $40,000 and borrowing more to meet the perpetrator’s demands, and he wanted to know why the bank hadn’t stopped it.
Legally, Dueser knew, First Financial did nothing wrong, but he felt strongly that the bank did, in fact, have a moral obligation to protect this customer. “We didn’t go the extra mile,” he said. “We could have stopped it.” He vowed to not let this sort of thing happen again, and implemented a program he called “Fraud Busters.” Its goal was to educate all 1,200 of his employees in 70 banks throughout Texas on the basics of elder financial abuse and teach them how to prevent it.
Now, his tellers watch for anything out of the ordinary, and immediately notify a superior whenever they have the slightest suspicion that something isn’t right.
In the years since launching Fraud Busters, Dueser said, the bank has prevented thefts of more than $1 million. Giving his workers the chance to stop crime has energized them. When, for example, a suspected offender comes in and is identified, “The teller will say, ‘Oh, my computer’s down, just a minute,” he said. Then they call police, who have arrested perpetrators while they’re still standing in line, according to Dueser.
Word is starting to get out, and First Financial is getting new accounts from older people who appreciate the protection, Dueser said. He has sent out instructions on how to start Fraud Busters to 10 other banks; Barclays, Wells Fargo and others are implementing similar programs. He’s also become an advocate for elder abuse prevention, speaking about his bank’s initiative at the White House Conference on Aging in 2016.
Greenwood, the San Diego prosecutor, has taken to cold-calling bank supervisors to shame them.
“There are times when I read about a victim of a scam who went into their bank within three or four days to withdraw $5,000,” he said. “I will call the branch manager and say, ‘Why didn’t your folks do something about that? Did you speak to the client? Did you call their children or their grandchildren?’ But they just get defensive.”
Four years after her father and uncle won a civil judgment, Julie Hlywa remains baffled as to why no criminal charges were filed against her grandfather’s widow.
“The county prosecutor’s office never did anything,” she said. “I talked to them. They seemed real gun shy and didn't want to take the case. I just got the runaround. It was really frustrating.”
Even so, she was encouraged by recent developments in the state legislature.
“There have been discussions in Michigan about making stiffer laws to protect the elderly from this type of abuse,” she said. “They're sick or older and they're just being shut out. And when they're looking for help, these predators step in. They see the vulnerability and know what the situation is as far as assets.”