Saturday, February 19, 2011

It's Open Season on Elders! In an Average Week, Utah Seniors Lose $1 Million to Thieves.

By patty henetz The Salt Lake TribuneIn an average week, Utah seniors lose $1 million to thieves.

That’s the grim finding of a new state study of elder financial abuse, which concluded the perpetrators are overwhelmingly the people seniors need to trust the most: their children and grandchildren.

These betrayers steal cars and pawn wheelchairs, refuse to pay rent to live in their parents’ homes and steal their medications. More often, they appropriate credit cards, loot bank accounts or forge checks.

The criminal activity costs all of society, says Jilenne Gunther, legal enforcement counsel for Utah Adult Protective Services. Her report, released last week and based on 2009 statistics, found that thefts ranging from $35 to $745,640 cost seniors, taxpayers, businesses and the government $51,506,100.

Financial institutions saw $30 million stolen; Utahns paid an estimated $7.8 million to care for elders impoverished to the point they turned to Medicaid for health care.

Affinity fraud, in which swindlers use personal or church connections to con people out of their money, has gotten a lot of attention in Utah. But advocates have had difficulty getting law enforcement to pay attention to fraud within families. For years, it was considered akin to a family squabble, and as with child and spousal abuse decades ago, was regarded as a problem best solved in the home.

“We couldn’t get the attention because we’re just social workers,” says Peter Hebertson, Salt Lake County Aging Services outreach director.

But financial theft represents the most prevalent type of elder abuse in Utah, Gunther says. Amid budget cuts, she undertook her study to justify a focus on combatting it.

‘It’s going to be mine’ » The report looked at 57 confirmed cases of elder financial exploitation, which Gunther says is probably 90 percent too conservative. She estimates that for every 10 actual incidents, only one is reported.

Some costs of such abuse couldn’t be quantified, such as loss of public housing, the consequences of drug dealers and users moving into a home, reverse mortgages gone bad, bank and credit-union liabilities due to fraud, utility shutoffs due to unpaid bills and mental and emotional damage to the elders themselves.

According to Gunther’s study, only 11 percent of perpetrators are strangers. Family members are responsible for 72 percent of all elder financial abuse cases.

“That is what makes it so insidious,” says Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill.

Gunther’s study found that only 2 percent of referral calls to Adult Protective Services came from the victims themselves.

In a separate survey of the legal needs of 1,000 Meals on Wheels clients in Utah, 6 percent reported having been financially abused. An additional 11 percent reported circumstances that would be considered financial exploitation, but didn’t report being abused.

The finding indicates elders might be embarrassed about what their families are doing or, conversely, unaware they are being robbed.

No comments: