Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Elder Financial Abuse Has Become a Hidden National Epidemic

Contra Costa Times Article Launched: 12/09/2007 by TAMMERLIN DRUMMOND

AN EX-CONVICT who works at an Antioch car wash "befriends" an 82-year-old customer with dementia. Over time, he not only persuades the World War II veteran to give him more than $300,000 in cash and annuities, but he also gets the elderly man to change his will making him sole beneficiary.

An East Palo Alto woman takes out a $200,000 loan on her 92-year-old grandmother's house without her knowledge. She leaves the wheelchair-bound senior alone in a house full of rats while she goes on a $75,000 shopping spree -- buying herself a champagne-colored Hummer.
After her arrest, she gets a mortgage broker to bring her loan documents in jail so she can take out another $400,000 loan on her grandmother's house.

Members of a nomadic crime family stage a string of car accidents with a 96-year-old Alameda woman. They scare her into thinking she'll lose her license if she doesn't pay them for the bogus damage to their car. They're able to keep playing the same cruel hoax over and over because she has dementia and forgets each incident moments after it happens. They swindle her out of $100,000.

All across California, shameless predators are robbing vulnerable seniors of their hard-earned nest eggs. Former Attorney General Bill Lockyer called elder financial abuse "the fastest-growing crime in the country."

It may not leave bruises or broken bones in its wake, but when an elderly person is suddenly deprived of the safety net that it took a lifetime to weave - with no chance of ever making the money back -- it takes a terrible psychological toll. In fact, it's common for seniors to die within weeks of making the traumatic discovery that someone whom they trusted has robbed them.

Countless lives have been ruined. Huge sums lost. And, with 75 million baby boomers across the nation hurtling toward senior citizenship, it's going to get a lot worse. We believe current laws are inadequate for dealing with the situation.

When a predator steals all of an elderly person's resources, it's the state that must step in and provide for him or her. That means we taxpayers get saddled with the tremendous cost of caring for the tsunami of destitute elderly people.

Elder Financial Abuse is a National Disgrace.

Yet where is the public outrage? Why hasn't the Congress passed a single piece of comprehensive legislation to protect vulnerable seniors? Why have lawmakers in Sacramento done so little to address this statewide contagion? Have we become so obsessed with youth that we don't care that our elderly parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles are being ruthlessly exploited? And that we pretend we aren't aware of their suffering?

"When the guy threw the poodle out on the freeway my mother in New York called me to ask if I'd heard about it," says Shadia Merukeb, a consultant for the Alameda County District Attorney who works with elder abuse victims. "But no one hears about elder abuse."

She's right. It's only the most sensational cases that make news, or those involving huge sums of money.

When the grandson of Brooke Astor accused his father in court papers of stealing millions of dollars from the 105-year-old philanthropist and society maven, it made international headlines. That's because Astor, who died in August, was a celebrity.

But, for the most part, elder financial abuse occurs in obscurity and it gets scant attention.

It is not even a blip on the radar. No one has made it a priority. Not the authorities. Not the courts. Not the Legislature. Not the Congress. Not the press.

We believe that it's high time someone did. "Theft of Elder Nation" is an editorial series based on months of interviews and reviews of public records.

Our aim is to help drag the hidden national epidemic of elder financial abuse out of the closet.

By focusing the spotlight on the rampant financial exploitation of our seniors, we hope this newspaper can help spur a meaningful public dialogue that will lead to reforms to protect our seniors from the wolves at the door.

Our intention also is to provide readers with valuable information that will help them to protect themselves and their loved ones from elder predators.

What exactly is elder financial abuse?

Generally speaking, it is the illegal taking of money or property from an adult 65 or older without that person's freely given consent -- and using that property for one's own personal gain.

In the past decade, elder financial abuse has quietly become a national disease. According to the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging, 2 million seniors are victims of financial crimes every year.

Those are just the people who we know about. Many seniors never report the abuse -- either because they're too scared or too ashamed to come forward. That's especially true when the bad guy is a family member or someone else whom they depend upon for care.

The National Center on Elder Abuse estimates that for every case that gets reported to authorities, at least three don't.

For a variety of reasons, very few elder predators actually get prosecuted.
In a criminal case, prosecutors have to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
That is exceedingly difficult in elder financial abuse prosecutions.

Victims typically don't make good witnesses. They have trouble remembering. They're easily confused. They break down under ruthless questioning from relentless defense attorneys. They lie to protect their abusers. They often die.

Elder financial prosecutions also take huge amounts of manpower to establish a paper trail between the victim and the abuser.

Even when prosecutors do win a conviction, the worst thing that usually happens is a judge will order the elder abuser to pay the money back.

Sometimes, he may get county jail time. But state prison tends to be the exception rather than the rule.

Ordering an elder abuser to pay back the money he stole is like no punishment at all. By then, it's already been squandered at the casino or spent on $55,000 Hummers or Hawaiian cruises. Most of what was stolen never gets repaid.

That's why it's so important to prevent the abuse before it happens and to mete out serious jail time after it does.

When it comes to financial fraud against elderly people, California is ground zero.

The reason is quite simple: More people 65 and older live in our state than anywhere else in the country: 4 million and counting.

People 85 and older are the fastest-growing segment of the elderly population.

With tens of millions of baby boomers fast approaching retirement age, law enforcement authorities are predicting an explosion in financial crimes against the elderly.

Adult Protective Services, the main government agency that investigates elder financial abuse, has seen a dramatic increase in complaints.

Frustrated APS investigators say they're so swamped, they're often unable to take action until it's too late.

Yet when we talk about the challenges that our nation faces as the population grows rapidly older, we dwell on future concerns. We worry that Social Security will run out. That the health care system will collapse under the weight of so many sick old people. What we don't consider are the devastating effects of elder financial abuse and its impact on elderly people and their families in the here and now.

Elder financial abuse is where domestic violence was 20 years ago. Which means that we, as a society, are pretty much in denial.

The police and the courts (there are some notable exceptions) tend to treat financial crimes against the elderly as civil matters: misunderstandings, or business arrangements gone sour, rather than crimes. Even when elder financial abuse cases do land in the judicial system, they're placed on the bottom of the totem pole. They often fall through the cracks.

The abuse usually happens behind closed doors. Victims are invisible. What's not happening in front of our faces is easy for us to ignore. And, for the most part, we do.

Eventually, however, sheer demographics will make it impossible to go on ignoring what is happening. People are living longer. Millions of today's baby boomers will develop Alzheimer's and other debilitating conditions that make them easy prey.

If we as a society don't take action, there will be many, many more victims in the future.

Many of these parasites are the very people you'd expect to be looking out for vulnerable old people.-- their own family members.

We have become a nation of adult children and grandchildren with a warped sense of entitlement. In an age when instant gratification rules, many people can't be bothered to wait for a death before claiming their inheritance. It's going to be theirs anyway so why should they have to postpone their grand plans for the good life?

Then, there are the countless opportunistic parasites who aren't relatives: Thieving caretakers, dishonest lawyers, accountants, mortgage brokers, cons selling worthless securities and real estate, bogus "senior investment planners," fake nurses, shady contractors, trusts mills, Canadian lotteries and "Sweetheart" swindlers are but a few of the predators operating. The list is endless.

"I knew it was a problem," says Virginia George, director of the Elder Law Clinic at John F. Kennedy University in Pleasant Hill, which gives free legal advice to elder abuse victims. "But I had no idea how wide and how deep it was."

Why do criminals target seniors? Because that's where the money is. People 50 and older control 70 percent of the nation's wealth. That's about $70 trillion.

Most of this bounty is due to a meteoric rise in real estate prices. That's especially true in once-hot markets such as the Bay Area.

The fact is, it's a whole lot easier to hold an old person up for his home than it is to rob a bank. A bank robber might get $5,000, if he's lucky. He might also get shot.

"But you go into an old person's living room, they'll serve you coffee, you hand them their pen and they'll sign over $200,000 to you," says Pleasanton Attorney Alan Ramos who represents elder financial abuse victims.

A frail senior battling cancer or dementia is hardly in a position to fend off an assault on his finances. If he's got Alzheimer's, he's probably too out of it to even realize what's going on.

The problem is unscrupulous, stronger-willed people use all kinds of nefarious tactics -- that aren't illegal under current law -- to manipulate elderly people into giving their consent for financial transactions.

Transactions that enable that thief to loot a senior's assets.

It's Called Using "Undue Influence."

Perpetrators isolate a senior so that he becomes totally dependent to the point of doing anything the predator tells him to.

Scare the senior into thinking that if he doesn't sign the power of attorney turning over control of his assets, he'll wind up in a nursing home.

It's a form of brainwashing - not unlike what goes on in cults.

Yet undue influence isn't against the law -- even though elder predators are using it to get away with criminal conduct.

A California appellate court has suggested that undue influence is no more than persuasive salesmanship.

However, we believe that when someone brainwashes or intimidates an elderly person into turning over his life savings, that goes far beyond good salesmanship.

Let's say a predator pressures a vulnerable elderly woman into signing over the deed to her house, knowing full well that she is incapable of understanding the implications of her actions. He then sells the house, leaving her homeless.

We believe that ought to be a crime.

If using undue influence to commit theft is not a crime, it's time our lawmakers gave serious, thoughtful consideration to making it one. Vulnerable elderly people need and deserve our protection.

Elder predators are everywhere. They know where to find their victims. They scout out neighborhoods, looking for well-tended yards and handicap access ramps. They hang out at bus stops and grocery store parking lots. Outside senior centers and retirement complexes.

They take advantage of the fact that people who grew up during the Depression tend to be more trusting. If a friendly sounding woman calls on the telephone and says she's with the government, they take her at her word. They believe that the personal information that she wants is for official government business.

They can't imagine that criminals have purchased lists of elderly people from banks and are using the information that unwitting seniors divulge over the telephone to clean out their bank accounts. -- all the while expressing sympathy for the recent loss of a spouse.

But age works overtime on many seniors. Illnesses weaken their bodies. Dementia ravages their minds. Other mental disorders make elderly people hoard to hold onto what they already have, which makes them especially susceptible to con artists peddling "low-risk, high yield" schemes.

These age-related infirmities make them easy targets for criminals and the criminally minded.

If we notice that the 92-year-old woman next door who used to sit out on her porch and greet the neighbors has suddenly become a recluse now that her adult granddaughter has moved in, we ought to pause a moment and ask ourselves why?

The welfare of our elderly residents is our collective responsibility.

The baby boomers have always prided themselves on doing everything better than previous generations. That includes aging better. As we're so fond of saying, "60 is the new 50."

The fact is, though, if your brain goes, it doesn't matter how smart and successful you once were.
You, too, will lose your independence. You'll have no choice but to rely on the kindness of family members, paid care-takers and others for your basic needs.

If for no other reason than selfish ones, we should all care about fighting elder financial abuse. Because one day, if we live long enough, it could very well happen to us.

Drummond is an editorial writer for the Bay Area News Group-East Bay. Her e-mail is tdrummond@bayareanewsgroup.com

Article abridged and edited because space constraints we strongly suggest you read this excellent article in its entirety, case histories, warnings here =>>


Rick Bryan said...

Excellent reporting on a nationwide problem. What are some specific remedies to the problem of financial abuse of the elderly?

sharryb said...

Thanks for this extremely informative post. I've read a lot regarding aging and still found information here that raised my consciousness regarding Financial Abuse of Elders.

Ray said...

Elder Abuse has many forms and in times of deceit and moral decline the general attitude of our officials tend to be one of disregard for even the scant laws already in place. Case in point my mother. Clara G. Fernandez , her social security income has been diverted away from her and her family. She was drugged and incapacitated , this lead to a total loss of her rights . A court appointed guardian took over the family finances , even though she had family to take care of her. pay her bills , etc Her multi million dollar estate is all but gone. Her case as well as that of many others whose letters for help we publish daily on ElderAbuseHelp.Org These Pleas for help have gone mostly un heeded, because of the internet, never have so many cases of Elder abuse and Elder Financial abuse been so well documented neither has the neglect and the " Look the Other Way" syndrome been so obvious. Thank You for a well written article on a subject that has gone ignored by the media for way too long !


Anonymous said...

In regard to elderly (seventy-five year old) attorney Walter Condon, and who evidently had lost a considerable portion of his mental faculties, being the victim of elder abuse due a person who stole huge sums of money from him, it did not surprise me in the slightest that the California State Bar put a huge amount of time, money, and effort into trying to bring a halt to that criminal activity, AND INCLUDING SINCE IN THIS PARTICULAR SITUATION IT WAS A LAWYER RATHER THAN A LAYMAN WHO WAS THE VICTIM. However, and on the other hand, the State Bar usually has little or no interest in halting those particular elder abuse scams in which lawyers are the thieves and stealing from laymen. In other words, if the State Bar did its job of protecting the public from crooked lawyers, a lot more lawyers would be disbarred, and many of them would also sent to prison.

Anonymous said...

Let's not forget attorneys and professional conservators as prospective abusers.

Anonymous said...

Elder abuse is bad enough, but when law enforcement opts to ignore evidence of elder abuse that is even worse. Why would California authorities fail to investigate when a conservator/caretaker of a senior withholds news of that senior's final illness, then provides a false date of death to family, along with other misinformation?

Anonymous said...

In my younger days, we were raised to respect our elders and hold them to the highest esteem. It would be unthinkable to treat our grandparents with any cruelty, be it a harsh word, or an unpleasant tone much less fleece them of their life long earnigs. I say we bring back and instill the moral values of society by imposing heavy penalties upon anyone abusing an elderly person.
Back in the day, we children would have been severely punished for even lying to an elderly person.
I am an elder now and I can not imagine such abuse against other elders, my children and their children not only love and respect my wife and I, but they go completely out of their way to make sure we are always ok.
God bless the MEEK, for they shall inheirant the Earth!

Anonymous said...

My mother IS a "ward of the State" and she is wondering why the POA she gave my eldest brother is not being upheld, is there anything we can tell her, how do we get her wishes respected and the POA she drew up for my brother put back into action? Everyone is passing the buck on her case, no one knows what she can do and she is not able to be with the son and his family she intended on being with when she got old and needed assistance with her financial affairs and such! It is a crime that mamma is being handled this way!