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You may think that if your mom’s money is being handled by a financial advisor at a world-famous, blue-chip bank, she would at least be safe from outright fraud, right?

Think again.

The most astonishing thing about the case of former Citibank
vice president Helen Caldwell, who has just pled guilty to fraud, is that while working at the bank she was able to scam her elderly clients right under Citi’s nose for at least nine years. 

The case came to light after one of Caldwell’s clients developed dementia and ended up in a nursing home, and the Cook County, Ill., public guardian got involved in overseeing her affairs.

From 2014 until last year, Caldwell tricked three elderly customers into blowing $1.5 million on shadowy movie ventures, including potential slasher, horror and vampire movies, and a documentary about Cuba. (Wait, what?)

During that time, the compliance department at Citi, apparently, noticed nothing. 

Citi refused to comment.

But maybe we shouldn’t be surprised.

In the modern blue-chip U.S. corporation, “compliance” and “oversight” mostly rests on simplistic box-ticking and self-reporting — stuff that makes compliance departments feel good, but does little or no actual good.

This includes maintaining impressive-sounding industry credentials. Caldwell was a “registered financial advisor,” and held the Series 7, 63 and 65 financial licenses. These ensure a basic level of competence. They do little or nothing to ensure honesty.

And it included filling out and signing a report for her bosses every year confirming that, no, she definitely wasn’t engaged in any fraud, no sirree Bob.

As the U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago put it in court documents, Caldwell was able to hide her fraud from the bank “by, among other things, submitting annual reports to [Citi] falsely certifying that her outside business activities did not involving soliciting investments from [Citi] clients or engaging in joint investments with [Citi] clients.”

How many crooks do these types of form even catch?

It makes you wonder why we bother with the police or a justice department: Uncle Sam could just mail every citizen a form once a year, asking them to self-certify that they aren’t breaking the law. What could go wrong?

During the nine years that Caldwell, 58, was faithfully filling out and signing these absurd documents, she was meanwhile taking her clients’ savings and spending them on construction work at her home, refurbishing a classic car, paying her property taxes, buying food and liquor, paying her cellphone bills, paying off loans, buying stuff for her pets, buying home furnishings and clothes, paying parking tickets, and paying for physical therapy.

She also took some of the money through cash withdrawals. 

One of Caldwell’s clients was in her 70s and one was in his late 80s. Their money is now gone.

Caldwell’s attorney did not respond to a request for comment.

If this can go on for nine years without being detected, what else is going on at big, blue-chip banks that we don’t yet know about? 

The plus side is that when this happens at a big bank, there is someone with deep pockets you can sue. Citi has a market value of more than $100 billion.

It’s a timely reminder to make sure that elderly relatives — or you — aren’t being taken advantage of. Ask questions, double-check documents and don’t just assume everything is OK.  Elder fraud is an epidemic, and it’s certain to get worse as America’s elderly population grows: Complaints to the FBI numbered more than 88,000 in 2022, with losses totaling $3.1 billion — up 84% from the previous year.

And that’s just the stuff we know about.

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