Assistant Swindled Elderly Art Collectors Out of $2M: Lawsuit

Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty Images
Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty Images

Esteemed art collectors Raphael and Jane Bernstein were allegedly swindled out of millions of dollars by an opportunistic personal assistant, according to a new lawsuit.

The Bernsteins, 92 and 87, respectively, are prominent patrons of the arts whose collection has been shown in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art, and the Hood Museum at Dartmouth. A biography on the Hood Museum website describes them as “elite art collectors” who have “dedicated much of their lives to searching and researching, conserving and sharing, and acquiring and giving away spectacular examples of the many art worlds they find interesting.”

The pair currently live in Ridgewood, New Jersey, where they invest “significant funds” and maintain “high checking account balances,” according to a lawsuit they filed in New York Supreme Court this week. According to a criminal complaint filed earlier this year, they hired a part-time assistant—who also worked part-time at the local library—in 2018 to help manage their bills, banking, email, and “other computer/technology-related issues.”

Starting in March 2022, the civil complaint alleges, the personal assistant started making purchases with the couple’s credit card—small, at first, then progressively larger. By October of that year, the assistant was allegedly ringing up charges of more than $160,000 in a single month, on everything from computers, electronics, gaming equipment, and “assorted collectibles,” according to the suit.

The assistant also allegedly used the Bernsteins’ ATM cards to withdraw cash, opened a line of credit, and made checks payable to himself from their personal bank accounts, according to the suit and criminal complaint. He also opened PayPal and eBay accounts in their names, despite the fact that the couple had “never used the services of these companies and are unaware that these companies exist,” the suit claims.

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To cover his tracks, the assistant allegedly shipped his purchases to his home, the library, and several “accomplices.” He also rerouted emails from eBay, Amazon, and PayPal to separate folders so the Bernsteins would not see them, and paid off the credit card balances with money from their checking account. Because they maintained possession of their credit cards the whole time—and because their Bank of America statements were being sent to an old address—the Bernsteins were unaware of the theft for almost a full year, the lawsuit claims.

In total, according to the suit and criminal complaint, the assistant stole $2.9 million from the elderly couple. He was arrested in January and charged with one count of wire fraud.

The Bernsteins are suing Chase, American Express, and Bank of America for failing to notify them of the fraudulent charges. They claim the institutions did not notice the odd transactions until February 2023, when Raphael Bernstein attempted to close his Chase checking account.

A banker—Raphael’s longtime personal banker—noticed “suspicious transactions” and conferenced in the fraud department and Raphael’s son John, according to the complaint. Over the course of that call, Raphael, John, and the bank found $703,795 in fraudulent transactions.

Concerned that his parents were being taken advantage of, John called his older brother, Dan, and the two began sorting through their parents’ remaining bank accounts and credit cards. According to the suit, they discovered hundreds of thousands of dollars in fraudulent transactions on both the American Express card and their Bank of America account, none of which the institutions flagged to the couple.

“The banks knew them, they knew their transaction history,” the couple’s attorney, Kevin Galbraith, told The Daily Beast. “Once [the assistant] got involved... there were hundreds of transactions a month and not a single call was received cautioning them.”

“It’s just kind of unthinkable that this was allowed to go on for any time, let alone as long as it did,” he added.

The suit claims Bank of America still refuses to refund $646,316.18 in fraudulent payments from their checking account to their Chase credit card—in part because Chase allegedly will not let them claw back the money, and because the payments occurred outside the bank’s 60-day window for refunding fraudulent charges. To this day, the couple claims they are unable to obtain a new credit card because of the damage to their credit.

The couple is requesting compensatory damages and the unfreezing of $165,000 in their Chase checking account.

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