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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Grandmas Go Free in Metro Token Scam

Working in the metro might not seem like a great way to make money. But for one group of elderly fraud artists, it has become a minor bonanza.

With the help of erasable pens and tricky accounting, the gang of six women conspired to steal about $300,000 from the city metro in 1995 and 1996. They were ultimately caught, but due to their advanced age, Moscow prosecutors have managed to convict only one of them.

"It's a pity, of course, but we couldn't help letting these women go," Judge Yury Buzukov of the city's Meshchansky court said Thursday. "These are the laws in this country. You steal a wallet with 20 rubles and go to prison, while those embezzling millions walk free."

Buzukov said that while all were guilty, only Tatyana Yevstafyeva, one of the youngest of the group at 48, faces a prison term. The rest went free under a special amnesty, approved by parliament in December 1997, which grants freedom to petty criminals above the retirement age, which is 60 for men and 55 for women.

According to the metro police's economic crime unit, the leader of the babushka ring was Samson Serebrov, a former convict whom the police are still seeking. A mechanic at the Komsomolskaya metro station, Samson used the keys entrusted to him to take tokens from the metro gates. The women, who worked as token vendors and accountants at the station, would then cover up his theft.

The accountants used erasable pens to fill out account reports with true sales figures in the presence of unsuspecting metro police officers. Once the officers left, they changed the sales figures -- and pocketed cash -- to roughly match the value of tokens still left in the gates after Serebrov's theft. The vendors then sold the unaccounted-for tokens to double their money.

The women told the court they left only one-third of the sum for themselves, giving the rest to Serebrov. The scheme functioned smoothly from early 1995 until late 1996, when a snap audit of the Komsomolskaya station exposed the fraud.

Police immediately arrested the six women, but Serebrov managed to flee and still remains at large. Proceedings at the Meshchansky court began Oct. 10, 1996, but four of the charged, ranging from 58 to 79 years old, soon found themselves beyond the reach of the prosecutor despite strong evidence of their involvement in the fraud.

After that "they would come into the court room with walking sticks, some looking sick ... but still confident that they would be freed because of the amnesty," Buzukov said. The judge said he regularly has to throw out cases involving elderly women because of their age, but has never had to deal with an entire ring of babushki.

Yevstafyeva was sentenced to three years in prison. Larisa Shebalina, 45, was sentenced to six years, but the sentence was suspended under the amnesty because she is the single mother of a 12-year-old boy.

Evstafyeva's conviction could have been longer if she, like the rest of her female accomplices, didn't return some 15 million rubles after their fraud scheme was exposed.

The women claim they each earned about $10,000. Each returned about $3,000 to the metro. The metro's lawyers haven't asked the court to try recover the rest of the sum, although Buzukov did rule to confiscate Yevstafyeva's property, most valuable of which was a TV set, a gas oven and a medium-sized carpet.

Buzukov said Yevstafyeva was alleged to have used her share of embezzled money toward her son's purchase of an apartment, but the prosecutor failed to prove this.

Kommersant Daily quoted Thursday an unidentified investigator as saying that some senior metro managers could have been involved in the scam. This, the investigator said, explains the metro management's reluctance to seek retrieval of the embezzled sum, as well as the fact that the ring had operated unabated for almost two years.

Another case involving embezzlement of metro tokens is reportedly being tried at the city's Preobrazhensky court, but officials there refused to comment Thursday.

Any future babushka rings will have a harder time pulling off similar token scams, according to metro spokesman Konstantin Cherkassky. He said the number of frauds started to decrease last September, when the metro started introducing magnetic passes.