In her day, Pilar Ladran, a Filipino immigrant, was quite the catch. She'd had two husbands who took care of her until the second one died in the 1990s. For decades she played bingo, cooked and raised her children out of her Imperial Beach home. When her grandson, Jay, needed a supplemental parent, she was there to bring him up.
As Jay reached adulthood, Pilar reached old age. By December 2004, her mental powers had started to decline. She'd already given her son Rolando, a 67-year-old chef in San Diego, power of attorney. But Jay, now 31, wanted money, and he wasn't sure how to get it-until he realized that Pilar's house had gone from middle-class dwelling to real estate goldmine. He persuaded her to sign off on a loan for $210,000, money he told the bank his grandmother planned to use for remodeling. To save himself the trouble of paying off the loan, he arranged for Pilar to sign an altered version of her will that would cancel any debt he owed her upon her death. He had the loan wired to a joint bank account he shared with Pilar, though only he ever took any money from it, and not for remodeling. He spent $50,000 for the down payment on a new home. About $45,000 went to a package-and-shipping business that soon went under. The remaining $105,000, he later told police, he spent on porn, strippers and prostitutes.
By December 2005, Jay had run out of money, so he had Pilar sign a counterfeit power-of-attorney form that he had a friend notarize. He took out another home improvement loan, this one for $80,000, money he again told the police he spent on strippers and prostitutes. Finally, in June 2006, Jay used another friend with notary power to forge a transfer of ownership of the IB house from Pilar to him. He paid off all the loans with a $400,000 mortgage on the house. Cash in hand, he moved to Jamul.
Rolando, Jay's uncle, had been collecting Pilar's mail, and he started to notice the bank letters coming in with 'Urgent' stamped all over them. By the time he figured out the problem, the mortgage company was preparing to foreclose on the house. Rolando recalls his confrontation with Jay.
'Jay said to me, ‘The money's gone.'' Rolando related the story through his attorney, Seth Bobroff. 'I said, ‘What do you mean the money's gone?' He said, 'It's all gone.' I said, 'Why didn't you come to me earlier? I could have helped, now I can't help. This is crazy.' At that point he was very nonchalant about it, very condescending, almost.'
Jay finally owned up to his crime when the Sheriff's Office called. He turned himself in on May 30 and pleaded guilty to charges of grand theft fraud and elder abuse on June 12. He now awaits sentencing and would not comment for this story.
When sheriff's detective Bridget Cartier discussed the Ladran case with CityBeat, she was impressed by the amount of money Jay stole, but not by his behavior. Apparently this kind of fraud has been happening to San Diego's elderly with increasing frequency.
'We're overwhelmed,' said Cartier. She is one of two detectives who deal with elder abuse for the unincorporated parts of San Diego County and cities without their own police department. In the city of San Diego, six detectives try to stay on top of a separate, but still enormous, caseload. Their boss, Sgt. Nancy Kulinski, spends nearly her entire shift most days sorting through complaint forms to determine which cases will be investigated. The deputy district attorney responsible for elder abuse, Paul Greenwood, has, in his 11 years working these cases, seen a jump from 16 prosecutions for elder abuse with financial fraud in 1996 to an anticipated 220 for 2007. And this figure represents a tiny fraction of the overall problem, he said.
The population both nationally and in San Diego is aging. San Diego's median age is projected to rise from 33.7 to 36.8 between now and 2020, while the percentage of people over 65 will rise from 10 percent to 15 percent. Many older people have lived in their homes for dozens of years, through an astonishing boom in housing prices, and they have accumulated equity. Increasingly, they are victims of fraud in general and real estate fraud in particular.
'The hard criminals who are out there, who have been caught several times, they're wondering, ‘How do I steal?' Well, they've figured it out,' Greenwood said.
The theft is usually on a much smaller scale than the Ladran case. Far more common is for a caregiver-often someone with a prior criminal record-to steal benefits checks or small valuables from inside the older person's home. But there's no one way that people try to take advantage of the elderly. Greenwood described a contractor scam, in which contractors tell elderly homeowners that they need crucial structural work done immediately and if the owner will just write a check, the contractor will fix it. Or there's the salesmen who persuade 85-year-olds to purchase 10-year annuities-a legal transaction, but perhaps not practical. But Kulinski, Cartier and Greenwood all spoke to CityBeat about the 'in' con: The Canadian Lottery Scam.
The grift runs like the Nigerian scams so common over e-mail. An elder-let's call her 'Ethel'-receives a letter congratulating her on winning the Canadian lottery. The envelope contains a check for the first payment, but to get the rest, she needs to pay the taxes on it. To find out how best to pay the taxes, all Ethel need do is call the number in the letter to figure out where she should send the tax payment. Naturally, even if Ethel sends the money, she will never receive her winnings, and the check for the first installment will bounce.
In one specific case recently, the niece of an elder like Ethel intercepted the letter and passed it on to Greenwood. He called the number and tried to lure the scammer into giving himself away. When he didn't, Greenwood identified himself to the scammer and received curses for his trouble. On the day last week when Greenwood showed CityBeat the letter, he then turned to the phone, pushed the speaker button and dialed 778-318-6211.
'This guy is a crook, he has no conscience at all,' Greenwood said as the phone rang.
A man answered.
'Hello, Liberty Investments, how may I help you?' a voice purred on the other end, with a hint of a Caribbean accent.
'Is this Jim Lewis?'
'Yes, how can I help you?'
'This is Paul Greenwood, the prosecutor.'
A pause. Greenwood pushed harder: 'Are you still scamming old ladies for their money?'
'Go to hell!' The accent was distinct now. 'You are an idiot! You don't have a job to do!'
And he hung up. Greenwood looked up. 'They're so brazen.'
Greenwood has contacted the federal authorities, plus colleagues in Vancouver (the city with the 778 area code) and Los Angeles, but everyone lacks either the resources or inclination to pursue this kind of case.
Kulinski and Cartier believe the current generation of elderly-the World War II survivors-are particularly susceptible to scams because of their 'trusting nature.'
'They come from a different era,' Cartier said.
Greenwood argues that the problem lies partly in the difficulty of detecting the earliest symptoms of Alzheimer's Disease and other forms of dementia-symptoms so subtle we just refer to them as 'getting old.' Complicating matters, the elderly sense their loss of faculties, which makes them less likely to report their victimhood.
'We're fighting the crooks, but we're also fighting this wall of silence,' Greenwood said.
Seniors fear that if they report the scams, their children may decide they can't take care of themselves anymore and put them in a nursing home. A commonly reported statistic says that only 1 in 16 of all elder-abuse cases are reported to the police, though Greenwood is suspicious of that figure ('if they're not reported, how do they know?').
Pilar Ladran was saved by the fact that Rolando made regular stops to her house and collected the mail. He immediately sought the advice of an attorney, who in turn wrote a letter asking the mortgage company to hold off on foreclosure, which they are doing. Rolando advises people with elderly relatives to get all of their affairs in order and to check accounts regularly. But none of that makes him less upset with Jay.
'How could he do this to her?' he said. 'He took advantage of his grandmother, who raised him, and that's just wrong.'