Monday, May 14, 2007

Western Pa. Scammers Who Prey on Elderly Targeted

By Jason Cato TRIBUNE-REVIEW Sunday, May 13, 2007

Two brothers with ties to Mt. Lebanon made careers out of it.

A former Beaver County accountant is sitting in a federal prison for his transgressions.

A former Pine stockbroker faces a similar fate when he's sentenced in federal court next week.

Though the crimes committed by these four men differ in the details, they were similar in one way: Each man preyed on the elderly in financial scams that involved millions of dollars.

Pennsylvania is ripe with seniors, and seniors are ripe targets for con men, legal experts say. Swindlers know the elderly are often flush with savings and other assets, such as real estate and investments, experts say.

State and federal prosecutors are working to make seniors less of a target. Their efforts have attracted national notice.

"In Pennsylvania, particularly, they've gone a long way toward getting the expertise and resources to seek justice against people who perpetrate these crimes against older people." said Sara Aravanis, director of the National Center for Elder Abuse. "There are major efforts under way to prosecute these egregious cases."

Last year, Pennsylvania Attorney General Tom Corbett's office established an Elder Abuse Unit, designed to fast-track cases involving senior victims.

"The clock is ticking on every case, but more so when the victim is older or incapacitated," said Nils Hagen-Frederiksen, spokesman for Corbett.

The Elder Abuse Unit fielded 6,432 complaints involving seniors in 2006. They covered everything from telemarketing and home contractor scams to criminal fraud and abuse. So far this year, 2,069 complaints have been received.

The Elder Abuse Unit helps move the cases through the system more efficiently, and the attorney general's office hopes publicity about the unit will cause more senior victims to report crimes.

Among the first criminal cases handled by the unit was that of a Fayette County lawyer accused of stealing more than $100,000 in mortgage settlement payments from older clients. Mark Morrison, 49, of Hopwood, is awaiting trial.

State and federal laws provide for stiffer penalties against those who commit crimes against people over a certain age. Pennsylvania prosecutors can seek harsher sentences if the crime victim is over age 60. Under federal law, sentences can be made tougher because of the victim's age or infirmities.

But the age of his victims may not be a factor in the sentencing of Jamin Epstein, 41, of Pine, a former stockbroker who pleaded guilty to illegally withdrawing approximately $130,000 from clients' investment accounts.

Epstein is to be sentenced Wednesday before Senior U.S. District Judge Gustave Diamond, Downtown. Because he entered a plea, federal prosecutors did not ask for a tougher sentence. Epstein pleaded guilty to mail fraud in which he defrauded elderly clients.

Congress is considering legislation that would strengthen penalties against those who abuse, neglect or exploit seniors.

"I think when people pick on older people because they're older, they should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law," said Ruth Mitchell, of Columbiana, Ohio, who fell victim to Barry Korcan, 51, formerly of Chippewa, Beaver County.

Mitchell, 66, and her husband, Len, 84, lost more than $100,000 to Korcan, her neighbor in Chippewa for 22 years. Unlike many senior victims, who often are embarrassed to discuss or report financial frauds, she has been an outspoken advocate who's appeared before the U.S. Senate and will be featured this month in a PBS program about seniors and fraud.

"If I don't do something, Barry Korcan isn't just going to steal our money, he's going to steal our life," said Mitchell.

Last year, Korcan was sentenced to more than seven years in federal prison for bilking dozens of elderly clients of his accounting practice out of more than $7 million by persuading them to invest in a bogus company.

"I think crimes against children and the elderly are the worst kind of cases to be involved with," said U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan for the Western District of Pennsylvania, "because the victims are so vulnerable."

The Senior Action Coalition -- which brings together attorneys, attorneys and law enforcement agencies -- was established in the Western District in 1999 to help teach seniors not to be victims.

Pennsylvania had 1.9 million residents over the age 65, which ranked fifth in the nation, according to the 2000 U.S. Census. At nearly 16 percent of the state's population, however, Pennsylvania had the second highest percentage of elderly residents, behind only Florida.

The National Center on Elder Abuse estimates there about 5 million cases of elder financial exploitation each year.

"There's a steady drumbeat of (scams)," said Lawrence Frolik, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh and a member of AARP Pennsylvania's executive council. "It's ongoing, and it ranges from petty thieves to sophisticated financial investors. And no one is immune from it."

In February, Gary Antonino, 51, and his brother, Richard, 57, were sent to federal prison for scamming investors -- many of them senior citizens with whom the men had developed business relationships -- out of between $4.5 million and $7 million. Prosecutors said the brothers ran a Ponzi scheme disguised as part ownership in a defunct Dormont dry cleaning business and an Ohio driving range and go-cart center.

Gary Antonino, formerly of Mt. Lebanon, is serving 87 months in a Maryland prison. Richard Antonino, who ran an investment business is Mt. Lebanon, will spend the next three years in a West Virginia prison.

The brothers had been part of a nationwide policy scam at Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. in the early 1990s in which older, cash-rich policies were rolled over into new, more expensive policies that paid huge commissions at the expense of unwitting policy holders. Gary Antonino was a regional vice president. Richard Antonino was one of the top salesmen in the country.

Both were fired, but neither was prosecuted. In 1999, MetLife settled a class-action lawsuit for $1.7 billion.

"I guess they don't have a conscience," said Richard Sabo, a Hampton investment specialist who worked at MetLife with the Antonino brothers and was the first to report their unscrupulous practices to the company and then to law enforcement authorities.

"They were living the high life ... while these poor customers -- most of who were blue-collar workers -- were losing thousands and thousands of dollars."

Jason Cato can be reached at or 412-320-7840.

No comments: