Scams of elderly are on the rise

Financial abuse and exploitation cost millions of older adults nearly $3 billion a year.
MCT Regional News
Mar 24, 2014

When the 73-year-old man picked up the phone at his Westerville home early one recent morning, a frantic caller identified himself as the man’s college-age grandson in need of help.

The caller said he had been picked up for drunken driving during spring break, was sitting in jail and needed $2,500 for bail. In between sobs, he begged his grandfather not to tell his parents or anyone else, fearing he might get kicked out of school or worse, his home.

“It scared the bejesus out of me,” the man said. “All I could think about was protecting my grandson and bringing him home, safe and sound.”

After several failed attempts to call his grandson, he wired the money.

A few hours later, his real grandson called, and the man found out he had fallen prey to an age-old shakedown that law-enforcement officials often call the “grandparents scam.” He asked not to be identified, because he is ashamed and embarrassed.

He said he probably wouldn’t have fallen for the scam if he hadn’t been awakened from a sound sleep at 3 a.m. and if the voice on the line wasn’t screaming in panic, making it hard to recognize that it wasn’t his grandson.

Financial abuse and exploitation cost millions of older adults nearly $3 billion a year, not to mention untold emotional and psychological anguish, according to a study by the MetLife Mature Market Institute.

Actor Mickey Rooney helped dramatize the toll of elder abuse when he testified before a Senate committee three years ago that he had been “stripped of the ability to make even the most basic decisions about my life.”

In February 2011, Rooney sought court protection from his stepson, Chris Abner, and Abner’s wife, Christina, for withholding basic necessities, such as food and medicine, while draining his finances. A Los Angeles judge appointed a temporary conservator for Rooney, whose health has been failing for years, and ordered the couple to stay away from him.

An estimated 1 in 9 elderly Americans experiences abuse or neglect per year, often at the hands of family members, friends, neighbors or caregivers, according to the National Council on Aging.

The actual figure is likely much higher because many incidents go unreported. Seniors often don’t want to turn in someone they trusted for fear of what might happen if they do, such as being forced to live in a nursing home because they don’t have a caregiver.

“It’s extremely sad sometimes because even if you see the abuse, you can’t help them if they aren’t willing to help themselves,” said Michelle Jones, a spokeswoman for LifeCare Alliance, which delivers Meals on Wheels in central Ohio.

The agencies that investigate abuse and neglect in Ohio’s 88 counties received 14,646 reports of abuse, neglect and exploitation of people 60 or older in the 2013 fiscal year that ended on June 30, according to state officials.

Self-neglect cases make up nearly half the reports (6,818), followed by neglect by others (3,362), exploitation (2,357), emotional abuse (1,108), physical abuse (963) and sexual abuse (38).

The problem likely will get worse as the number of Americans 65 or older explodes in the coming years. That’s why it is imperative, experts say, that relatives and friends learn the warning signs, such as unusual bank activity or a new “best friend” or a family member who isolates a senior from others.

“It’s a huge problem and much, much more prevalent than anyone has any idea,” Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said.

President Barack Obama has included $25 million in new funding in his federal budget proposal to detect, prosecute and raise awareness about elder abuse and neglect.

The Ohio House recently passed a bill designed to protect older Ohioans from losing their life savings or homes. The bill, proposed by two Republicans, is being debated in the Senate.

The proposal expands the definition of elder abuse under Ohio law to include financial harm, neglect and exploitation. It would create a registry to identify and track patterns of elder abuse, provide ongoing training for caseworkers and extend the list of people who would be required to report allegations of abuse to include banks and other financial institutions.

“The elderly-abuse laws in Ohio haven’t been updated in 25 years. The world has changed a lot over those years,” said Rep. Wes Retherford, a Republican from Hamilton and a co-author of the bill.

Rep. Mike Dovilla, a Republican from Berea who is the other author, said he knows personally how easy it is to almost become a victim. A scammer tried to get money from his grandparents recently by claiming to be a grandchild who had been in a car crash and needed money. His grandparents didn’t fall for the scam, he said, but “it’s heartbreaking what can happen.”

A recent survey by the National Association of Professional Geriatric Care Managers identified these types of elderly abuse: theft by family, friends or neighbors; theft by caregivers; mail, phone or Internet investment/security scams; home-repair scams; and getting a senior to sign a deed, will or power of attorney through deception.

Sometimes, the cases are clear-cut, such as when two women befriended and obtained a power of attorney for a 94-year-old Clintonville man in 2009. They stole more than $850,000 of his savings and were about to help themselves to $50,000 more when they were caught a year later.

Other times, it’s murkier, such as when an adult child moves into his aging parents’ home and relies on their retirement benefits, or a caregiver talks a senior into giving her money for an emergency, said Antonia Carroll, director of the Franklin County Office on Aging, which investigates abuse claims.

“Just getting involved is often enough of a deterrent to get someone to back off,” Carroll said.

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By Encarnacion Pyle - The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio (MCT)

©2014 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)

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