Are there worse crimes? Of course. Sexual and physical abuse come to mind. But in this article the focus is financial exploitation.
Here’s a headline, ripped from an August 26, 2012 Seattle Post Intelligencer (PI) article: “Son, wife fleeced dementia-stricken mom.” Here’s the good news – the son, Ivan Ljunghammar, and his wife, Deborah Jean, have been charged with felony first-degree theft. Here’s the bad news – this pair allegedly stole close to $513,000 dollars from Ivan’s 82-year old mother, facilitated by him being awarded control over his mother’s finances in 2007.
The victim and her husband (deceased) were very careful throughout their lives to make sure they had sufficient funds for when they truly would need them. They did an amazing job and as it turned out, those funds were needed. I guess her son and daughter-in-law figured they needed the money more. Added to that atrocity, the daughter-in-law knowingly hired a convicted felon to care for her mother-in-law. Who does that? The morally corrupt – that’s who. But I digress.
A desire for the parents’ estate compromises morality.
Although it’s true that strangers rob from vulnerable adults, family members do it more often than you can – or would care to – know. It’s the vulnerable adult with dementia who is most often targeted by strangers and family alike, and the family members who “legally” have access to mom and dad’s funds are the most hideous criminals. This family member becomes the Power of Attorney over finances and/or care needs for their mom and then abuse that “Power” by assuring mom that all is well and that she need not worry herself, all the while moving money away from mom’s accounts into their own.
Some financial exploitation is more subtle.
Moving mom or dad out of their current assisted living facility, in which the parents initially had carefully chosen to live, to a facility that is less expensive so that more money remains after mom and dad die. Holding back the daily care a compromised adult may need. Providing a bare minimum of personal belongings and clothing for their loved one – again, for the same reason. Do I sound harsh and judgmental? Gosh, I hope so. My work with the older population for the past 12 years has created a jaded view of how some family members respond to the needs of their parents. Thank goodness the percentage of good and loving family is greater than that of the bad and corrupt – but that does little towards softening the effects of a vulnerable adult’s emptied bank account when they need it most.
It’s unfortunate that media headlines are the primary thing that exposes elder fraud.
I know I personally don’t write about elder fraud enough in this Blog. My article, Financial fraud against the elderly: it’s a family affair, does draw attention to some of the examples I’ve addressed in this Blog entry, and I guess the more sensational occurrences of elder fraud will make this crime more visible. But I think the bottom line is that I want the impossible. I want our elders to be respected, not exploited, and I really want family members to grow a conscience.
In yesterday’s post, a Seattle Police Detective defined elder abuse as:
- sexual abuse
- physical abuse
- financial exploitation
In Part 6 of Seniors for Sale: Placement perils and successes, Michael Berens, Seattle Times reporter, delves into the senior housing placement industry, focusing on one placement company that placed a client in a Tacoma-area Adult Family Home (AFH) with a history of safety and health violations – elder abuse – even a fatal event, but because the placement company had not done its research, it was not aware of the home’s previous infractions and kept placing unknowing vulnerable adults in the home’s care.
Many of these placement service companies operate state-wide and/or nation-wide, and believe that there is no way that they can help as many people as they do if they are required to visit each and every home/assisted living option available to the public that they are trying to assist. These companies are oftentimes characterized as Bed Brokers – an industry that is growing exponentially without much scrutiny or State controls.
CAVEAT: Just as in every assisted living situation – there are good senior housing options and there are bad senior housing options – so too there exist reputable senior placement companies, and not-so-reputable placement companies.
I personally think that these companies can be helpful to those looking for a senior housing option that suits their, or their loved one’s, needs. I caution those using these agencies, however, to understand that not every option out there is listed with placement companies. If a senior housing company does not choose to be listed with a placement service company, that option will not be offered, even if that particular housing option might be the very best choice for some families: cost-wise, location-wise, and even service-wise.
In a news update, Michael Berens’ article, State gets tough on referrals for elder care, we see that attention is now being directed at these placement referral companies in the hopes that those they serve – vulnerable adults in need of some sort of daily care – are protected from those companies who are simply aiming to make a profit at the most vulnerable time in an elder’s life.
As I mentioned in previous articles found in my blog category, Senior Housing, there are numerous resources available for those looking for senior housing for themselves or a family member. Please go to that category and type in a search term in the space located on the right-hand side of the page to find the topic that interests you most.
Part 5, of Seniors for Sale: Hiding Harm: the human toll, is one example of the lack of reporting that goes on in some assisted living residential settings – in this case – an Adult Family Home (AFH).
When you watch the video link above, you’ll be shocked at how a particular accident happened – and its after effects on the victim – and you’ll be horrified at how long it took before it was reported to the police.
Perhaps this statistic will provide a partial explanation:
only 16% of all incidents of elder abuse are reported.
Not only are many caregivers not reporting incidents of abuse that occur; surprisingly, family members fail to get beyond the denial stage when they discover that their loved one just might be in danger in the very location entrusted to his/her care. They can’t believe that the caregiving solution they found for their loved one has turned out to be disastrous in every way.
The police investigator for this case states the following:
We don’t tolerate domestic violence, but that’s not always the case with elder abuse.
The final episode of Seniors for Sale will be submitted tomorrow, Saturday.
A trusted family member would NEVER financially exploit their loved one – right?
All classes of people, and most age groups, become victims of financial fraud. The elderly, however, have been hit particularly hard. A recent Puget Sound Business Journal article (a Washington State publication) provides some astounding statistics for the state of Washington:
- reports of elder abuse grew by 30% in five years;
- 4,121 cases were reported to Adult Protective Services in all of 2010 and that number was already reached by November of 2011;
- the Washington State Office of the Attorney General only receives a fraction of the financial abuse cases because many go unreported; and
- the National Center of Elder Abuse in Washington, D.C. states that only one in 25 cases of elder abuse are ever reported.
So who are the perpetrators? These thieves are neighbors, caregivers (family related or not), best friends, and trusted financial professionals.
But nationally, nine out of 10 financial exploitation cases involve family members.
This type of abuse begins innocently enough “let me help you pay your monthly bills mother.” The adult child becomes a signatory on the bank accounts, keeps up with mom’s bills, but also pays him or herself a little here and there and before you know it, mom doesn’t have the financial means to live out her days. Certainly most family members are trustworthy and respectful of their elders and look out for their elders’ best interests but the statistics certainly paint a horrific picture, don’t they? And what’s worse, if the elderly victim has Alzheimer’s or other dementia, it doesn’t take much effort for anyone – family or stranger – to enrich their own bank account while draining mom and dad’s.
It’s virtually impossible for government agencies to monitor cases of elder abuse. The local agencies that help the indigent elderly are strapped financially. Budgets are being cut resulting in decreased staffing, and caseloads that are unmanageable and overlooked – but not for lack of trying!
So what can you do to protect those vulnerable adult victims that seemingly go unnoticed in our local communities? I provide some suggestions in my blog article, Elder Fraud: a few things you can do to protect your loved one. This article assumes that family members are trustworthy and selfless in their interests. Fortunately, that’s probably you, but obviously, elder fraud is a national problem so it’s vital that everyone be reminded of how easily thieves can take advantage of the older generation.
I’m certain this topic affects many of you and at the very least, angers the rest of you. I covet your input and look forward to your thoughts on this matter.
A senior citizen receives mail that promises her the opportunity to receive a $10,000 Sweepstakes check but first she has to send the organization a $25 check or she is told to wire money in order to receive the proffered $10K. This same lonely person receives CONSTANT phone calls in which many demands are placed upon her to send money or they will come to her residence and cause her bodily harm.
It doesn’t matter how many times you tell your loved one to hang up when she receives one of these calls. It doesn’t matter how many times you try to convince her that responding to the mail and/or the phone calls will not net her any positive financial results. She always responds, and because she’s still able to mail a check or drive to Western Union and wire money to these nefarious people, she keeps doing so and finds herself in a heap of financial trouble.
Let’s consider the following mail fraud scenario: at a long-term care (LTC) facility, the staff, along with the resident’s family members, changed the resident’s phone number numerous times and rerouted her mail to go elsewhere, but because of the persistence and trickery of these unscrupulous people, they always managed to get through the filters set up to eradicate them. This particular resident’s apartment was finally searched by staff, at the suggestion of local law enforcement and with the permission of the resident, and what they found would make your blood boil. This resident had shoe boxes full of “Sweepstakes” documents, and once the apartment had been cleaned out, over a dozen large garbage bags filled with documents had been removed. Once this resident responded to these criminals by sending money, they had a victim upon which they could rely.
I’m not going to address the issue of identity theft per se which is another prevalent type of fraud exacted upon elderly adults. Let’s concentrate on mail fraud which can certainly lead to identity theft. With mail fraud, which eventually can lead to “phone fraud,” the victim in question is oftentimes isolated, lonely, and as most senior citizens will tell you, is worried about having enough money to get her through her later years. The promise of a $10,000, or higher, windfall is just too good to resist. Let’s be honest with ourselves – we can’t resist this type of temptation either. If you’ve ever purchased a lottery ticket, and I’ve purchased many, you hope beyond all reason that this time the lottery ticket will have the winning numbers, because after all – somebody has to win! When you’re a senior citizen and money is tight, why not hope beyond all hope that the $10K Sweepstakes could be real, as unlikely as that may seem to us?
So how does one put safeguards in place to ward off these types of criminals?
If you live close enough to your elderly loved one, have a look-see around their living space. Do you see any piles of envelopes that look suspiciously like one of these mail fraud schemes? When my father lived in a one-bedroom apartment in an assisted living facility, as he left the room to use the bathroom and/or to take a nap, I did some Irene-sized investigative work. I didn’t stop at simply looking at what was on top of his desk, I rummaged through the drawers. I looked at his checkbook register for suspicious outgoing checks (there were a few.) I tried to discern if there were any Sweepstakes letters from repeat offenders who thanked him for his previous money submission and asking for more – again, there were a few. I know that this investigative activity reeks of privacy invasion but if that meant protecting my very generous father who was in the early stages of dementia – I was willing to do so. And I didn’t stop there. I cleared his desk of all but one or two Sweepstakes envelopes so he wouldn’t notice that absolutely everything was gone, and I stuffed them in my backpack and took them home to shred. If you don’t live close enough to visit on an ongoing basis and suspect that your parent who lives in a long-term care facility is succumbing to this type of mail fraud, call a staff department head and ask him/her to have a look at what is visible on top of your loved one’s desk/coffee table. You shouldn’t ask staff members to open drawers – that’s inappropriate and is actually against most facilities’ resident privacy policies. Once you are aware of a concerning outcome, then you can take steps to provide personal intervention on your loved one’s behalf. A phone call to the local Long-Term Care Ombudsman Office located near your loved one will initiate a complaint and that office will attempt to resolve this matter on behalf of the resident – your family member.
Phone fraud harassment – one step closer to elder abuse.
I became aware of a woman who received numerous calls a week from these scammers, threatening her with bodily harm if she didn’t wire the requested funds. These criminals have no conscience whatsoever so they aren’t shy about yelling at the elderly victim; making fun of them when they cry on the phone because they’re afraid of the threats; calling the elderly person a loser and that they’ll never have enough money to carry them through the remainder of their pitiful lives. As cumbersome as it may be, I strongly suggest you have your loved one’s phone number changed. Only those who need to have the number: family, close friends, medical personnel, and facility administration, should be given the new number. You may have to do this several times before the stream of fraudster phone calls come to an end.
Resources on which you can rely.
The AARP website has links to resources that are very informational regarding elder fraud. Once you access their website you can link to the chapter that is active in your local area and you’ll find contact numbers for Fraud Fighter reporting. Additionally, the Attorney General’s Office (Washington State website linked here) is very helpful. Not only can you report cases of fraud through their website, you will also find a list of scams currently making the rounds. Let’s not forget the U.S. Postal Service as well. They have a postal inspection division that walks you through the steps of preventing and/or eliminating mail fraud. I think once you start typing elder fraud into an internet search engine, you’ll find numerous links, such as The Elder Fraud Project, that will prove helpful.
Whatever you do – don’t sit idle and ignore the signs of mail fraud. I can guarantee you that the scammers trying to acquire as much of your loved one’s money as possible are not idle – they’re hard at work to enrich themselves at your loved one’s financial expense.