The Spanish social worker who claimed a dead man’s pension for 33 years

The woman, who is now 83, has pleaded guilty to fraud and document forgery, but will not go to prison

The bank grew suspicious when it realized that the pensioner must be around 100 years old.
The bank grew suspicious when it realized that the pensioner must be around 100 years old.VICTOR SÁINZ
Juan Diego Quesada

One morning back in 2007, the manager of a branch of the Spanish savings bank Caja Madrid personally handled the business of one of his longest-standing clients. This customer had been picking up a psychiatric patient’s pension for more than 20 years, and she was about to walk out the door with the money once more when the bank manager asked if he could check the ID of the patient in question.

“Excuse me, but this document has expired,” said the manager.

“Yes, I know. But the man is so sick,” explained the customer.

“Just go to a notary and sort it out,” he said.

“How is he going to move?” she replied. “You should see the state he’s in.”

She was right. Jaime Pons wasn’t going anywhere. At this point, he had been underground for decades. He had died alone in 1980, leaving no children behind. It was then that Juana Igeña, the social worker at Alonso Vega Psychiatric Hospital, where Pons spent his last years, started to collect the disability grant that Pons was entitled to every month. For 33 years, the woman’s scam went unnoticed.

But when the bank manager intervened that day, things began to unravel. Igeña had used her position in the hospital, and the fact that Pons had no one to mourn his passing, to keep his personal papers. She opened an account in his name at a branch of Caja Madrid – now Bankia – on Martínez Izquierdo Street in March 1981, and arranged for his pension to be paid into it. During the first 23 years she received only €104 a month, but in 2013 that amount increased to almost €700.

I’m very sorry for what I’ve done. I’m sorry. I’m going to give it all back
Juana Igeña

Over the years, the bank began to grow suspicious as none of its staff had ever set eyes on Jaime Pons. According to his documents, he was around 100 years old. In January 2013, the bank asked the social worker to present a life certificate for Pons. With the original ID card and forged authorization, Igeña managed to obtain one at the Madrid Civil Registry, which she subsequently presented to the bank.

From then on, every 25th of each month, the social worker went to the registry, obtained a new life certificate and took it to the bank to collect the pension two days later. The ruse was repeated 50 times, according to the police, and would have continued if a Social Security employee hadn’t taken the trouble to cross-check data and look for the man’s death certificate. Jaime Pons, he discovered, was indeed deceased.

Now 83, Juana Igeña has just been in the dock of a Madrid courthouse, on trial for fraud and forging public documents. Using a cane and struggling to hear, she arrived at the Madrid Provincial Court in the company of her husband, her son and a lawyer. The prosecution was asking for six years behind bars and for her to return the nearly €200,000 she had defrauded from the Social Security coffers.

When she stood in the dock, the first thing Igeña did was to ask for forgiveness. “I’m very sorry for what I’ve done,” she said. “I’m sorry. I’m going to give it all back.”

Her defense has reached a plea deal: a suspended two-year jail sentence and payment of almost €150,000. Her son has already made an initial payment of €20,000 that prosecutors see as an act of good faith. “The family has had a hard time over this issue,” her lawyer told the court. “They want this to be over.”

But it took several hours for the deal to be confirmed as the private prosecution for the Social Security department sought a guarantee of payment. Igeña herself has a pension of €800 that cannot be legally seized, and a personal history of debt and gambling, according to judicial sources.

The bank’s lawyer noted that Social Security had issued life certificates for a deceased person

While Igeña was excused from testifying again, she was told to wait in the courtroom. The judge still wanted to know if there were other guilty parties besides herself. The Social Security lawyer wanted the bank to return part of the money for not being careful enough when it opened an account in a dead man’s name, and for allowing someone who was not even a relative to take home the checks every month. The bank’s lawyer argued that it was Social Security that had issued life certificates for a deceased person, and there was a prolonged argument between both over who bore greater responsibility for the failure to spot Igeña’s scam.

During the exchange, a police officer intervened via video conference to explain that the Civil Registry and Social Security have no system for sharing information, a loophole that Igeña had taken full advantage of.

As the lawyers continued to go at each other, Igeña and the others in the courtroom began to grow restless. When the elderly fraudster was finally told she could leave, she limped off with the help of her cane and gave thanks to God that her ordeal was finally “over.” The last part of the trial had struck her as purgatory and she voiced what many had been thinking, muttering, “What a drag!” as she went.

Suspicious pensions and wills

In the past few months, the Provincial Court of Madrid has opened legal proceedings against two women who appropriated the pension and inheritance of people who had died alone and without children.

In September 2019, a Romanian domestic worker managed to forge the checks of a woman she had cared for until her death in Alcalá de Henares. She also forged the woman’s will, designating herself as her sole heir. After being found out by the police, she was sentenced to two years in prison and required to pay back the almost €100,000 she had taken.

English version by Heather Galloway.

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