Financial Abuse of Elderly: A New Crime on The Rise

Thief as likely to be friend or family as to be stranger

ByABC News
July 22, 2011, 12:53 PM

July 26, 2011 -- A California woman, 85, has been found in a cabin in Edgecomb, Maine -- under-nourished, disoriented and allegedly robbed of her life savings by three young "friends" who dragged her state-to-state.

The trio allegedly used her as their personal piggy bank until her funds ran out, then dumped her.

The woman, whose name police have not yet released, is only the latest casualty of a growing trend: financial crimes against the elderly.

Maine police have charged twins Barbara Davis and Nicholas Davis, 41, and their 20-year-old godson, Jonathan Stevens, with endangering the welfare of a dependent -- a felony. The three now are free on bail, due in Lincoln County Superior Court Sept. 29.

"They knowingly left her in a small cabin with no telephone and very little food," says Det. Robert McFetridge, who is investigating the case. "They left her to her own devices to take care of herself in 93-degree heat."

It's possible, he says, that other charges will be filed.

"We're looking into all aspects of the case -- including the financial," he says.

He calls the woman's abduction and exploitation a textbook example of elder financial abuse.

The woman told authorities that she had sold her Los Angeles home in 2008 for $600,000, moving into an apartment complex where she met the suspects, who gradually won her confidence and gained access to her bank accounts and investments. No befuddlement or impairment on the woman's part was to blame -- she was in good health physically and mentally. Rather, she was lonely.

It's easy for a charming outsider to insinuate himself into a lonely senior's life, says Maureen Symonds, director of programs for Senior Concerns of Thousand Oaks, Calif., which provides services to the elderly and to their families. One day the new friend needs something -- a quart of milk, perhaps -- but he's misplaced his cash. "OK if we use your debit card, Gladys?" he asks. "What's your pin number? Tell me, and I'll just punch it in." Symonds says exactly this happened to a close friend of hers.

"A week later, $50,000 was gone," she says.

Often as not, the thief may be a family member, says Dr. Judy Yates, affiliated with Senior Concerns. She works with a local Financial Abuse Specialist Team to investigate allegations of financial fraud against the elderly. Such FAST teams exist on the county level in California and other states.

She describes an all too common situation: Grandma needs help living on her own, so her family assigns a grandson or granddaughter the job of living with her and buying groceries. The grandchild is put on grandma's checking account or given access to her debit card.

"Next thing you know," says Yates, "the grandson buys a car to take grandma to and from the doctor -- except it's not a car, it's a monster truck."

If drugs enter the picture and the grandchild's habit needs subsidizing, grandma's accounts may be called into service.

How widespread is this kind of crime?

"It hard to get our hands on real numbers," says Sharon Merriman-Nai, co-manager of the National Center on Elder Abuse at the University of Delaware.

No single entity keeps tabs on the total number of crimes or the sum of money stolen. Experts believe, though, that for every case that gets reported, a dozen more do not, either because the perpetrator doesn't get caught or because the victim is too ashamed of being duped to contact authorities.