VOL. 132 | NO. 203 | Thursday, October 12, 2017
Financial Exploitation of Elderly a Crime of Increasing Opportunity
By Don Wade
America’s oldest citizens always have been at risk for financial exploitation and abuse. But as people live longer, the window of opportunity for such crimes widens.
From July 1, 2016, until June 30, 2017, the Tennessee Department of Health Services’ Adult Protective Services division hotline fielded about 20,000 calls from people reporting the abuse, neglect or financial exploitation of an older person. The number to report suspected abuse or exploitation is 1-APS-TENN (1-888-277-8366).
“This type of crime is expanding and getting worse for no other reason than people are living longer,” said Lt. David Sloan, who directs the economic crime division of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Department.
October is Fraud and Financial Awareness Month. Last year, family members, friends and clergy reported 32 percent of the cases of financial exploitation against an elderly person in Tennessee. The vast majority of cases (61 percent) were reported by professionals such as physicians and social workers.
• A man reaching age 65 today can expect to live, on average, until age 84.3.
• A woman turning age 65 today can expect to live, on average, until age 86.6.
• About one out of every four 65-year-olds today will live past age 90.
• About one out of every out of 10 65-year-olds today will live past age 95.
Source: Social Security Administration
One reason for the disparity is that many primary caregivers are family members and also the person taking advantage of a vulnerable elder.
“There are a lot of good caregivers out there that step up and help with the finances,” said Renee Bouchillon, who directs the Adult Protective Services division. “Unfortunately, there also some bad actors out there.”
That’s literally an apt description. Sloan says that caregivers exploiting an older adult, whether a family member, a friend, or someone hired to provide care, typically follow the same script: Separate the older person from other family while gaining their trust.
“They make the elderly person believe they are the only one who cares,” Sloan said. “They get the elderly person to sign over documents, give them power of attorney, and they raid the person’s bank account.”
The Adult Protective Services division only investigates financial exploitation cases involving government money, such as misuse of a person’s Social Security check. Bouchillon says certain criteria has to be met for the caregiver, whether family or not, including knowing of the victim’s advanced age and/or reduction in mental ability; and being aware the person cannot function independently.
“The alleged perpetrator is usually a family member,” she said. “It’s very heartbreaking.”
Often, the older adult won’t want the perpetrator punished, she said, adding, “They love their grandson. If they say, `That’s fine for my grandson to take my Social Security check and do whatever they want,’ there’s nothing we can do. We have to walk away sometimes.”
Warning signs that someone is taking advantage of an elderly person financially include a sudden change in financial condition, unexplained ATM activity or an uptick in withdrawals, unpaid bills, and a drastic change in the person’s quality of life.
Sloan says if a caregiver is telling a relative or friends the person is unavailable, that’s a major red flag.
“If they’re not allowing access to the person, then usually something is going on,” he said. “A lot of times we get involved a little late. We find out the victim had a half-million dollars in the bank and everything’s gone.
“We’re working a case now where the caregiver has bought four or five vehicles. We’ve had cases where the house has been sold and the victim is moved in with (perpetrator) or some other less desirable area.”
A few years ago, Sloan says, they closed down a couple of single-family residences that had been made into makeshift nursing homes where older people were being financially exploited and not cared for properly.
Sloan says when they catch these criminals, the ones who have not engaged in any physical abuse, but only financial exploitation, usually get probation and are ordered to make restitution.
“Some of these suspects actually believe they deserve the money because, `Look how much I’ve done for the person,’” he said. “And let’s not beat around the bush: It’s a rarity when the victim receives even a fraction in restitution of what was taken.”
Sloan’s best advice for people with older loved ones living on their own is to keep closer tabs and thus narrow that window of opportunity for stealing – be it by blood relatives with evil intent or cold-hearted strangers.
“If you’re only checking on them once every three months,” he said, “you might want to consider doing it more often.”