My mother had a secretary/bookkeeper for the last 23 years of her life, from 1979-2002. Her name was Anne. Anne did everything Mom needed done regarding her finances. She paid Mom’s bills and balanced her checkbook, kept track of Mom’s investments, worked with the accountant on her taxes, handled all insurance matters, did her filing, etc. Anne also did anything else Mom wanted her to do. She returned endless catalogue purchases for Mom (this was before the internet), made and changed appointments for her, helped her find caterers, plumbers, exterminators, whatever. She would also run errands like going to a department store to buy Mom’s makeup. She became indispensable to Mom.
Over the years, Anne became more of a family member than an employee. In fact, Anne would tell people that she was my sister, which I found creepy. She shared everything that was going on in her life with Mom and turned to Mom for advice. Anne always told Mom that after losing her own mother, Mom was like a surrogate to her. Mom shared a lot of her life with Anne as well and they became incredibly close.
Anne in 1993 at my son’s Bar Mitzvah
Mom showed her gratitude and love for Anne by helping her out financially. She paid for Anne’s kids to go to summer camp for several years. She helped Anne make a down payment on a house. She ‘loaned’ Anne money when things were tight.
In the mid 1990’s, Mom’s accountant noticed that Mom was beginning to spend more money than she made. He told her she had to cut her expenses down. That meant selling the beautiful and beloved apartment she had shared with my dad and lived in for close to forty years. She moved into a smaller and cheaper apartment but it didn’t help enough. She was still spending too much.
My mother swore she was being as economical as possible. But Anne insisted that Mom was spending more than she realized. So the accountant asked to see Mom’s books and records. Anne convinced Mom that this was an unnecessary expense. This went on for several years until I put my foot down in 2001 and Mom agreed to give her accountant all the documents he had been requesting.
What he found was truly incredible. Anne had been using my mother’s checkbook as if it were her own. Literally. Anne learned how to forge Mom’s signature and paid a large portion of her own bills from my mother’s checkbook. Her forgeries were so good, we had to hire a handwriting expert to prove that they were actually forgeries.
Anne wrote checks on Mom’s account to pay for most of her monthly expenses. She made mortgage payments and her son’s college loan payments from Mom’s checkbook. She paid her electric bills and other household bills as well as all her credit card bills. Some of those credit card bills paid for first class tickets to Paris and a week at a top Paris hotel for Anne and her husband! Anne told her husband that this whole trip was another ‘gift’ from my mother.
Anne also forged endorsements of checks over to herself and even wrote checks for cash out to herself! It was all right there in Mom’s checkbook! In 2001 alone, Anne stole over $100,000!
Mom confronted Anne. Anne swore she had only done it that one year. And then the accountant went through the records for the prior year, 2000. He found exactly the same pattern. We contacted a lawyer. The lawyer contacted the District Attorney.
We only had records going back seven years. But we found that Anne had been writing $75,000-$100,000 worth of checks to herself for all seven years. In looking through old files, I found several more checks, forged by Anne, paying Anne’s bills. These checks were from 12 years earlier. We realized that Anne had probably been doing this for the better part of twenty years. She got bolder and bolder as the years went by and she continued to get away with it.
We sued Anne and tried to get some money back. We assumed that she had stashed at least some of it away. We hired a private investigator and he found absolutely nothing. We could never find any trace of any of Mom’s money. Anne must have spent it all. We suspect it was on online gambling.
Anne was forced to sell her house and paid us back $100,000 from the proceeds. But we estimate that the total amount taken over twenty odd years was over $1,000,000.
The District Attorney in New York decided to bring criminal charges against Anne. The D.A. said that this was one of the worst and longest running cases of elder fraud she had ever seen. She had contact with Anne in court and in interrogations. She said that Anne was a classic sociopath because she showed no remorse or guilt for anything she had done.
My Mom was dying of cancer when the charges against Anne were brought. She couldn’t go into New York City to give a deposition. So the D.A. came to our house in Connecticut with a videographer to document Mom’s testimony before she died. It was enough to convict Anne. Anne went to prison for six years followed by two years of probation.
Mom died about eight months after the initial discovery of Anne’s embezzlement. She knew Anne was going to jail. But that did little to alleviate the pain she felt from this monumental betrayal. It was very hard for Mom to wrap her head around the fact that she had been ‘taken’, ‘conned’ and ‘used’ for over twenty years, by someone she had loved and trusted implicitly.
I can’t tell you how violated Mom felt. I felt it too. It’s similar to what I felt after I was held up at gunpoint on a side street of New York City. It is also humiliating to be so badly duped and defrauded. You have lots of mixed emotions in situations like this. You kick yourself for not figuring it out sooner. You look for signs you may have missed along the way. You wonder if you should ever trust anyone again.
Anne and Mom in 2001
Mom also felt catastrophically stupid for being so careless about her own finances. She so totally trusted Anne that she NEVER LOOKED AT HER CHECKBOOK! Everything would have been discovered if Mom had just looked through her own checkbook once during those twenty years.
It’s sad that my mom spent her last months obsessing about this tragedy. It’s sad that it happened at all. The saddest thing of all is that Anne is out free now, probably doing the same thing to someone else. And there’s nothing we can do about it.