Financial Abuse of Elderly: A New Crime on The Rise

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

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.

Merriman-Nai estimates that somewhere between 750,000 and 3.5 million elderly have been victimized by financial exploitation. One study, she says, used newspaper reports of thefts to try to estimate the scope of the problem It put total losses at $2.6 billion nationwide, as of 2009, and at $2.9 billion as of 2010.

"Financial exploitation against the elderly is very prevalent right now," she says. "The elderly have assets. They've had their lifetime to acquire savings and property."

Moreover, the infirmities of old age -- including reduced physical mobility and dementia -- can make them easy targets.

Care-givers enjoy a special predatory advantage, since they often have the authority to administer (or over-administer) drugs, keeping their victims in a perpetual haze, isolated from friends and family. That's what happened to the 86-year-old mother of Cynthia Wooten of Berkeley, Calif.

Her mother, Kathleen, though suffering from "totally crippling arthritis" remained fiercely independent.

"She made me promise I'd always help her stay in her own home," says Wooten.

The solution seemed to be to hire a live-in caregiver, and Wooten did so, paying a premium to use an agency that seemed above reproach. She eventually was paying $7,400 a month to a woman giving Kathleen 12 hours of care per day.

The care giver, Allison, was a small, blond woman who belonged to the Mormon Church. These qualities made her seem trustworthy, in Wooten's eyes.

"I thought to myself," she says, "that this was going to be fine."

It wasn't. On April 25, the care giver was escorted by police from Wooten's mother's home after bank officials at Wells Fargo, where Kathleen banked, became suspicious of certain transactions and notified the police. In all, the care giver had made off with some $50,000 between Sept. 1, 2010, and April 25.

"My mother's credit cards had been maxed out," says Wooten. "Most of her jewelry was gone. Her CDs had been chashed-out."

So outraged was Wooten that she began looking into what kind of licensing requirements apply to home care providers, and was shocked to find there were next to none.

"I found out that so-called non-medical in-home care givers are not licensed and never have been," she says. "There are no standards, no oversight. They don't do background checks on the people they employ. There are no training requirements, no industry penalties for abuse. For decades these people have been doing whatever they want. It's wrong. It has to be fixed."

California state senator Curren Price has introduced legislation -- the Home Care Services Act of 2011 -- that would address these wrongs by requiring home care service providers to be licensed by California's Department of Public Health. It also would require all home care aides to undergo background checks.

California is not alone in its failure to regulate the home care industry: Only 28 states require licensing.

Financial crimes against the elderly, says Merriman-Nai, inflict harm that goes beyond the loss of money.

"It has an impact on a senior's ability to trust," she says. "It's not just a question of X-amount of dollars being taken. It wounds their soul."

Wooten says her mother, as a result her care giver's thievery, now suffers from post traumatic stress disorder.

"She has these flashbacks," Wooten says. "She has nightmares. She told me she had one where Allison pulled her chair away from her, and she fell."

Wooten's mother says she wants to see "that bad woman in jail."

"She kept me drugged," she says. "She ruined my life."

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