Fraud and the Elderly: Is Anyone Paying Attention?

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Photo by Chris Marchant via Flickr

Paul Greenwood, San Diego’s Deputy District Attorney, has been investigating crimes against the elderly for over two decades.  As head of San Diego’s Elder Abuse Unit, he’s been a front-row witness to the tragedies such crimes have left in their wake.

“I have seen for myself many instances where victims in their seventies, eighties, nineties, never recover,” he said. “They don’t recover financially; they don’t recover psychologically. And emotionally, it can be devastating for them.”

Over the course of his career, Greenwood has emerged as one of the country’s most outspoken advocates for elderly crime victims. He has not only pushed California state lawmakers to pass aggressive elder abuse reforms, but he’s also testified numerous times before Congress, calling for a nationwide change in our approach to elder abuse.

But the subject is still below the national radar. That, says Greenwood, is why such crimes should be given  separate attention in the criminal code.

When President Obama cited the need to train more prosecutors to combat elder abuse at the 2016 White House Conference on Aging, it “was probably the first time I’ve ever heard [a] president in the last 20 years even mention it,” said Greenwood.

“Other crimes– particularly gang violence, child abuse, trafficking, they seem to get the attention of the politicians. But sadly, not so much elder abuse.”

Currently, only an estimated 2% of  incidents involving financial exploitation of the elderly is reported, according to research conducted by the National Adult Protective Services Association (NAPSA).

Nevertheless, advocates say that public awareness has been growing.

Over the past decade, all but four states in the U.S. have passed legislation to address elder abuse, and to a lesser extent, elder financial exploitation.

People appear more willing to pick up a phone and call somebody when a relative or a friend is victimized.

Still, Greenwood says, it remains a challenge for public policy: “Once somebody reports it, does anything happen?”

Generally speaking, Americans view stealing from the elderly as a morally repugnant act. It is no coincidence that the 2016 amendments to the FTC Telemarketing Sales Rule draw on several notorious cases where seniors lost everything to fraudsters.

But for all the evocative value of such cases, there are still relatively few local resources committed to the investigation and prosecution of these crimes—with the exception of a few counties scattered across the U.S.

Despite the new legislation adopted by states over the past decade, elder financial exploitation is still not recognized as a crime in its own right.

“I think [this] is related to age-ism, to be honest,” Elizabeth Loewy, former chief of the Elder Abuse Unit at the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, said in an interview with The Crime Report.

New York City has a record of aggressively prosecuting elder fraud, despite the difficulty in getting exploitation statutes passed—largely thanks to the work of Elder Abuse and Elder Fraud Units in Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx.

Loewy pointed to the scarce number of Elder Abuse Units around the country, especially in comparison to domestic violence, child abuse, and sex crimes units.

“I felt fortunate that we had one,” said Loewy, “but we didn’t have the resources of the other units, even though we had more cases.”

Brenda Uekert, director of the Center for Elders and Courts, a project of the National Center for State Courts, compared it to the early days of domestic violence laws:

“Those crimes were hidden, because people were charged with assault or battery,” she said. “So if you were to collect statistics on domestic violence in 1980, the crime didn’t exist, [and] the problem didn’t exist.”

Some of the worst cases of elder financial exploitation are not being perpetrated by strangers, but by family members and caretakers who have access to an elder’s life savings.

“Unless you have law enforcement and prosecutors trained on elder abuse, I don’t know that they recognize this is a criminal behavior,” said Uekert.

“Sometimes in the law enforcement arena, and we’re really working on this, it tends to be discarded as a family issue,” said Julie Schoen, deputy director of the National Center on Elder Abuse (NCEA).

“Or, they perceive that maybe the older adult has some sort of cognitive impairment, or they honestly don’t take it seriously.”

“The piece that I am particularly concerned about is when there is a legal document such as a Power of Attorney, or court-ordered guardianship or conservatorship,” said Uekert.

“Very often somebody shows that to law enforcement, or prosecution, and they say ‘well, you’ve got this civil arrangement, so this must be a civil problem.’ And that’s one of the challenges I think that we still need to overcome.

“Just because this document exists, doesn’t give that person the [right] to take out $50,000 and buy himself a boat.”

Once an elderly person has given money to a criminal in an IRS, lotto, or ‘grandparent’ scam, police often say there isn’t much they can do, said Schoen, “They don’t [treat] it like a property crime or a theft.”

Patrick Lamb, Assistant D.A. of Jefferson County, Alabama, said he was “quite certain” that the majority of such crimes in his county never made it to his office, even though he heads a white-collar crime unit that focuses on public corruption, fraud, and elder exploitation.

“I find that frustrating,” he said.

Since it was formed in 2014, the Jefferson County unit has focused on cases where a family member abuses Power of Attorney to take money from an older relative. In one recent case recounted by Lamb, a man abandoned his aunt in a nursing home and cleaned out her accounts, leaving no money left for her care.

But cases of third-party theft, where an older person is victimized by scams over the Internet, mail, or telephone, are not making it to the Jefferson County DA’s office.

“Even when it’s reported, if it’s at all complex, it’s not investigated,” said Lamb. “If the elderly are taken advantage of by an email, then once they’ve sent the money, what are the police supposed to do?”

He added: “If you’re a Birmingham police detective and you get 20 calls of elder exploitation, they’re all going to the white collar unit, and they’ll have a stack of police reports to follow up on. And if the first one is ‘niece took $500,000 out of her retirement account,’ that’s one where there’s something you can do: you can go talk to the complainant, [and] you can look at the bank account.

“But if the next one is ‘somebody called me and said my grandson was in jail in Georgia, and I needed to transfer $200,000 to get him out of jail,’ there’s nothing to follow up on.”

A scam like this “may be more clearly criminal than a caregiver or a family member,” said Lamb, but “you don’t have a person to charge or to investigate or to hold accountable.”

Resources vary throughout the country, and so do attitudes about the roles of law enforcement and prosecutors.

The Jefferson County D.A.’s office has one investigator for all white collar crimes, and adheres to a more conventional procedural chain. If police never find a suspect, the case never makes it to the D.A’s  office.

In contrast, the San Diego D.A.’s Elder Abuse Unit has three prosecutors, four investigators, and actively seeks out cases of suspected fraud.

Greenwood realizes that “most prosecutors around the country don’t see it as their role to rattle the cage and go look for cases,” he said.

Last year, one of Greenwood’s investigators even worked full time on a local ‘grandma scam,’ tracing the money all the way back to India through prepaid Walmart and Green Dot cards.

Twenty years ago, when Greenwood’s Elder Abuse Unit was first formed, former Chief of Police David Bejarano also created a special unit within the San Diego Police Department to deal with elder crime.

These combined resources within the DA’s office, law enforcement and state legislature have made San Diego one of the country’s leading counties for prosecuting elder fraud.

Needed: A ‘Cultural Shift’

Based on what prosecutors and national elder advocates are saying, it will take nothing less than a complete cultural shift within the criminal justice system to protect older Americans.

“It’s very good to have a case brought to you all tied up in a bow where we’ve got the defendant, we’ve got the fingerprints, we’ve got the confession,” Loewy told The Crime Report.

“But these cases in particular require investigation, they require extra work—because many of the victims won’t come forward to talk about what happened, or they don’t even realize that they’ve been defrauded.”

Greenwood, whom the NCEA called “the DA we all wish we had,” believes prosecutors need to change their traditional role:

“Most prosecutors are trained to be reactive,” he said. “With elder financial abuse we have to be far more proactive— so we have to talk to the banks, the credit unions, we have to talk to adult relatives, neighbors, mail carriers, and obviously the police departments to say ‘what are you seeing? what are you hearing? and what’s being done about it?’”

Victoria Mckenzie is Deputy Content Editor of The Crime Report. Her earlier story on elder crime and the financial industry is available here. She welcomes comments from readers.

 

6 thoughts on “Fraud and the Elderly: Is Anyone Paying Attention?

  1. Recently, I figured out the local pizza delivery man was stealing from my elderly dad every time he ordered. It’s so frustrating as it doesn’t met the threshold for prosecution. Even more maddening is the manger of the local shop who appeared to not be concerned when I informed him.

  2. And the opposite is true as well. Mother’s modest pension, our sole source of monies for her inexpensive home care, since she does not require a nursing home, was threatened with suspension if we did not ‘prove we were not thieves’. I was able to produce a copy of the original POA, set in place several years ago. So, her modest pensions, roughly $2100 a month are there, for us to use, for groceries. Those amounts, far less than we’d need if she were in a costly, impersonal nursing home. So, the issue of elder fraud needs to be discussed, made public, and a real dialogue engaged. Just before we set this in place and took on the task of caring for our mother as a family, we were approached by a sleazy lawyer who began, “I can show you how to hide her assets.” (BTW she only had like $25,000 in the bank – no property, no portfolio, no diamonds, no car – after a lifetime of work.) Attorneys that prey on frightened families who do NOT know where to turn should be tarred and feathered. That is also a form of elder fraud that entraps families trying desperately to do the right thing. Luckily we told him where to get off. I see elderly people ignored, neglected, and easy targets for telemarketers, and other predators. I always, always step in and make my objections known. I may be only a ‘civilian’, but these are our elder beloveds. And, I am now an advocate, after watching some the ghouls in action.

  3. My mother died almost 1 yr ago on April 5 2015. She had been hospitalized in and out for 1 1/2 months. She suffered in pain and fear. she suffered miserably as she waited for me to rescue her from the family members that put her in a locked institution, gov. adjencies- APS, local police, ombudsman, district attourny, attouney generals,(both CA, and OR). in general the responses were ” our hands are tied” APS removed mom from her own home in Fairfield, CA with threats of taking her home and property and placing her in a state facility that there would be no repeal from.

    Picture this; APS agent Alicia Jones, with 6 police officers beside her, all standing over my 82 yr old mother as she sat on her own couch in her own living room telling her she had to be out by 6 PM that night to go to Oregon with my daughter or they would put the paperwork in to place her and take all she had. I know this because I was in that living room trying to make sense of what was happening. I’m her oldest son, Stephen. My moms home had been turned into a drug house making it unfit for mom . The two live in caregivers, my brother and sister, both dope fiends and the root cause of that situation were both at the house too. They lived there another 6 or 7 months until evicted by the sherriff. They continued to live there with bills being paid by moms retirement pensions. I had tried everything I could think of, called or wrote to gov agencies, spent every penny I had on lawyers, court fees, travel expenses. This is a brief of the part of moms nightmare, it gets much worse after I helped convince mom to go with my daughter to Oregon. A plan discussed with my daughter to get mom away from the clutches of APS and dangers of my dope fiend brother and sister. Then have them removed and I would return moms home to the condition she had always kept it,(flower gardens, visits from her grand children and her friends). I would then return mom home and move in as her caregiver. Mom had become seriously ill in 2013 resulting in micro strokes that caused a sudden onset vascular dementia. She was tested and diagnosed in 2013. Her doctor told her that even though she has this there was no reason she couldn’t live a long happy life. She recovered fully from that illness and had no major medical problems. The minor chronic issues she had were easily managed and the dementia condition she had could be stopped and reversed. This was her primary care dr saying this and again I know because I was sitting right there with mom. This is such a complicated story with so many similarities to others I’ve read. The timeline spans 31/2 yrs. Mom diagnosed and under the care of my brother and sister until forced from her home was 3 yrs, then the last 6 months with my daughter at first.

    Then behind my back, she put mom in Brookdale Memory Care in Roseburg OR. My daughter turned 180 degrees against her grandma and me, which she both loved and respected. I haven’t got a reason or any communication to explain from her. I was preparing to move to OR to take over in Jan 2016. Mom had called me crying for me to come get her, telling they were putting her in a home. I told her I was on my way. Next, I receive a copy of petition for my daughter to become guardian. She needed this to put mom away. I went and opposed this petition. when I arrived mom was already placed in this locked ward. A hearing for guardianship was set 3 eeks ahead, I hired my own lawyer, and visited mom every evening ensuring her I would take her home. Besides illegally putting mom in before she was granted guardianship, I was successor trustee to moms trust and also executor of her will. My lawyer even talked with mom and didn’t see any problems with me taking mom out of there under my care.A few days before the hearing mom is in intensive care with no blood pressure and malnourished. The hearing was a disaster My lawyer was a fumbling idiot ,not following the plan he and I had discussed, when I spoke up with key points I was rudely told to shut up and don’t speak , I lost…. at the end of the hearing my daughter’s lawyer asked the judge to approve some docs that removes me as trustee and executor. She granted it without batting an eye. I felt like I had been hit with a baseball bat. Later I find out that I’m completely removed , not even as a benificuary. I left and raveled 80 miles to the hospital mom was in. That court was a sham, a setup which I just recently found out was manipulated by a lawyer in Sonoma county, Eric Gullotta. I just found out he has been behind this in the shadows from may 2015. I presume he manipulates and convinces by threats of causing irs problems. He is a former employee of the irs as a tax collector. I give real names because everything I say is the truth and if I had the chance to publicly expose all those mentioned with hard evidence I have they would be ruined in the least. I just received a copy of final account of mom’s trust which answers many loose ends. It also shows how much money this gullotta crook pocketed ( im sure he got much more than the 50K reported) Mom estate was a small estate valued at 250K. I was erased and blacked out of any communications so I wouldn’t find all this out and more. Did I mention mom died terribly of dehydration and malnutrition complications. Mom was not given medications while in that brookdale. Meds that mom had used for 20yrs to maintain ulcerative colitis. They admitted this as a mistake, I filed a complaint with OR state ombudsman. It was squashed and swept under the rug.

    To end , there are a lot more elderly among us living healthier and longer, except Alzhiemers is strangly an epidemic. Nursing homes corps. blood sucking lawyers, and a corrupt or indifferent judicial system are all latching on to make big bank off of useless and confused elderly. It’s big business. I’m a single retired waretime veteran, now with no family, My mission is to tell this story with names dates and places any way I can. Moms last words to me were “Don’t blame yourself Stephen”. I do blame myself. Thanks for your time

  4. Sounds like another typical guardianship racket. It is happening all over the country. Stephen we ,would like to have more info about your story and there are others too who would like to share your story too. We just started a web-site which will cover WA state and some of Oregon. Would you please contact us so we can get more info. We have to expose these lawyers, guardians, judges and their scams.
    Fred@case-abuse.org
    We would like to know other cases with guardianship problems too. If anyone has a story, especially WA state, please let us know.
    By the way, it is not just the lawyers. The judges are involved and they appear just dumb about guardianship, but they know when they are signing off on excessive fees. They are in on it.
    If you have any info on a judge getting a house paid off rapidly (probably by someone else) someone on your state wants that evidence. Contact us and we will find out who. Judges caught taking bribes (payments) is priceless evidence.

    • Hello Fred, I tried the link above, It didn’t work for me. I am more than willing to provide anyone with more on mom’s nightmare. Believe me, I kept everything, texts, photos, legal docs, and a journal Which I wrote in every day. The only good advise I got from a Fairfield Police Detective. He told me that his hands were tied in helping me remove drug addicted bro and sister from mom’s home. His advise; start a journal, write in it everyday, date pges, and most important, don’t try and rewrite pges. can be used as admissible evidence. I have a stack of notebooks worth. You can contact me
      sjp8669@gmail.com
      Respectfully, Stephen

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