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Bennett Wasserman is trying to collect $600,000 by playing the card that says “bank error in your favor.” Wasserman represents Beatrice Robbins, an 82-year-old Fair Lawn, N.J., woman whose son Gary cashed in most of her assets — stock he looted from her safety deposit box. During a hearing in federal court in Newark, N.J., on July 13, Gary Robbins pleaded guilty to a criminal charge that he took the stock and squandered the proceeds. He’s a compulsive gambler. Wasserman is seeking recovery among more respectable sources. The Hackensack, N.J., sole practitioner is suing a notary and two banks, saying they enabled the theft by violating securities and banking laws that require institutions to safeguard customers’ holdings and check signatures carefully. Robbins v. Columbia Savings Bank raises a question as old as consumer banking itself: What care must a financial institution take to verify customers’ bona fides? Or, as the defendants in this case would prefer it: Is a bank liable when it is fooled by a determined and skillful con artist? According to pleadings in the criminal and civil cases, Beatrice Robbins has two sons. The dutiful Wayne held her power of attorney and shared access to her safety deposit box at Columbia Savings Bank near her home. Gary, whom she had secretly disinherited, had been hospitalized three times for compulsive gambling and, after a serious lung operation in January 2000, returned from Ohio to live with Beatrice for the winter. Here’s what happened next, as Gary Robbins admitted to U.S. District Judge Katharine Hayden: On March 27, 2000, he filched the safety deposit box key his mother kept in her bedroom and used it to get into the box that contained stock in nine companies, including Pfizer Inc., Lucent Technologies Inc., Merck & Co., Bell Atlantic Corp. and AT&T Corp. The certificates were worth about $600,000. He got in by forging his brother Wayne’s name on the signature card at the vault. And three days later, Gary went back to the bank and put color photocopies of the stock certificates back in the box. The civil suit says that on March 30, Leonard Fishelman, who works at Mail Boxes Etc. USA Inc. in Fair Lawn, notarized a durable power of attorney granted to Gary by Beatrice. Gary has admitted forging his mother’s signature on that document. In April, subsidiaries of First Union Bank — acting on the durable power of attorney — gave Gary the signature guarantee he needed to sell the stock, open an account at First Union in Beatrice’s name and withdraw money from that account. By the end of June, most of it was gone. Wasserman says Gary later moved out and telephoned his mother to tell her he had taken the money. Beatrice hired Wasserman, the FBI was notified and the criminal investigation led to Gary’s plea. He is free on bail, guaranteed by his girlfriend, pending sentencing. He also is a defendant in the civil suit. His lawyer, William Summers, of Cleveland’s Summers & Vargas, calls it the “most unfortunate lawsuit that a person can endure. His mother is suing him.” But Gary isn’t the primary target. First, the suit says Columbia Savings breached its contract with Beatrice and was negligent in failing to ascertain the true identify of the individual who gained access to the vault. By Wasserman’s reckoning, the bank didn’t merely accept the bogus signature Gary had forged. It also failed to require him to produce identification. “Comparing a signature is an unreliable procedure,” he says. “There should be a positive identification.” The bank’s lawyer, Thomas La Conte, says, however, “all the procedures prescribed by law were followed.” La Conte, a partner in Hackensack’s Cole, Schotz, Meisel, Forman & Leonard, says the signature cards were compared, as required by procedure. And, he points out, Gary did have the key to the box. “It’s not as if someone can come in off the street and gain access.” Another target of the suit is the notary who endorsed the durable power of attorney on which Beatrice’s name was forged. According to notary Fishelman’s endorsement, Beatrice Robbins appeared before him and signed the document, but nothing in the pleadings explains how that squares with Gary’s admission that he forged her signature. His lawyer, Larry Raiken of Montville, N.J.’s Berkowitz & Raiken, did not return a call seeking comment. The other main targets are First Union and various subsidiaries, including clearing companies that guarantee signatures on powers of attorney. These clearing companies’ certifications, known as “medallions,” are required before a person can buy or sell securities in the name of someone from whom a power of attorney has been granted. The suit says the clearing companies and the bank were negligent in not requiring Beatrice to appear personally so they could witness her signature as a prerequisite to a grant of the guarantee medallions. They shouldn’t have relied on what turned out to be a forged, albeit notarized, power of attorney, the suit claims. “What we have here is a scheme whereby First Clearing Corporation, First Union Brokerage and First Union National Bank, all members of the same corporate family, furnished the mechanism and the vehicles through which about $600,000 of plaintiff’s savings were laundered and stolen,” Wasserman said in a memorandum to Bergen County Superior Court Judge Peter Doyne. First Union’s lawyer, Thomas Lewis, a partner with Princeton, N.J.’s Stark & Stark, says he won’t comment on pending litigation. In its answers to the complaint, First Union has denied the allegations. Wasserman has begun deposing Columbia Savings Bank employees, and a status conference is scheduled before Doyne today. In a statement issued by her lawyer’s office, Beatrice said she’s upset that First Union hasn’t “honored its guarantee.” She said bank and brokerage industry safeguards that are supposed to prevent fraud and theft and to protect the public were ignored. “I don’t understand why this should happen or why I should be forced to spend my retirement years fighting First Union in the courts,” she says.

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