The Color of Money

Few elder abusers are strangers

Washington Post Writers GroupJuly 19, 2009 

— Fraud is bad enough, but when you have family members or caregivers who are financially abusing their elderly relatives or patients, that's downright despicable.

And yet, in most of the cases of elder financial abuse, the perpetrators are not strangers. Family, friends, neighbors and caregivers are the culprits in 55 percent of the cases, according to a report, "Broken Trust: Elders, Family, and Finances," released by the MetLife Mature Market Institute. The report was produced in conjunction with the National Committee for the Prevention of Elder Abuse and Virginia Tech University.

Law enforcement and securities officials say the recession is pushing more people to steal from well-off seniors.

"There is definitely more fraud than there has been," said Fred Joseph, Colorado securities commissioner and president of the North American Securities Administrators Association. "Elder financial abuse is becoming the crime of the 21st century as the growing senior population is increasingly targeted."

The annual financial loss by victims of elder financial abuse is estimated to be at least $2.6billion, according to the report. The average victim of elder abuse is a woman older than 75 who lives alone.

It's not surprising that the more health issues seniors have, the more likely they will be victimized. As I searched media reports of abuse for just this year, I found numerous cases where family members and caregivers took advantage of seniors with dementia.

A nursing assistant from Washington state was charged with stealing more than $770,000 from the elderly woman she was caring for.

In a Florida case, a man called authorities to report his 80-year-old mother's hairdresser had stolen her checks. The stylist was accused of taking $25,000 from the woman's checking account. But get this: During the investigation, police charged the victim's 52-year-old son -- who had first alerted police -- with fraudulently cashing $6,900 in checks from his mentally incompetent mother.

Last month in Virginia, a home health caregiver was sentenced to six months in jail for taking $15,000 from an 85-year-old woman suffering from dementia. The victim was bed-ridden.

The financial abuse of seniors has become so prevalent that the North American Securities Administrators Association and National Adult Protective Services Association recently united to develop tips and strategies to protect them.

"A silent crime is taking its toll on America -- silent because so many of these cases go unreported," said Kathleen Quinn, executive director of the protective services association. "This announcement is the first step in a partnership we hope will grow to close the gap on elder abuse."

Elder financial abuse can happen in a number of ways, according to the National Committee for the Prevention of Elder Abuse:

Forging an older person's signature.

Getting a senior to sign a deed, will or power of attorney through deception, coercion or undue influence.

Using the elderly person's property or possessions without permission.

Promising lifelong care in exchange for money or property, and not following through on the promise.

Making charges against victims' credit cards without authorization.

Confidence crimes ("cons") in which victims are scammed by gaining their trust.

Following are some red-flag warnings NASAA will provide to adult protective services workers to help them spot and stop potential elder financial abuse:

Is the senior receiving information about or being asked to invest in unregistered securities or start-up companies? (You'll have to do some research to find this out.) Securities fraud can be detected by checking with your state securities regulator. Contact information is available at www .nasaa.org .

Is the investment high-risk or possibly speculative (such as oil and gas exploration), new or untested technologies, or rare metals, or does it involve currency trading?

Has the senior been asked to sign blank paperwork or to give discretionary authority over her accounts to an adviser?

Is the senior complaining that his investment adviser won't give him his account statements or documentation?

Has the senior made out a check directly to the adviser or broker for the purchase of an investment?

Information on NASAA's Web site will assist you in helping seniors avoid these problems. Search for "Senior Investor Resource Center."

To report elder abuse, you can contact an Adult Protective Services office at www .apsnetwork .org or through the National Center on Elder Abuse at www .ncea .aoa .gov or 800-677-1116.

"This type of crime just sets me off," Joseph said. "You get victims who are in their 70s and 80s being taken for their life savings. What do they do? They can't earn it back."

If you suspect a senior is being financially exploited, report it -- even if the suspected scoundrel is a family member.

Michelle Singletary, the personal finance columnist for the Washington Post, can be reached at singletarym@washpost.com singletarym@ washpost.com .

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