December 11, 2011

USA: Senior exploitation a preventable crime

PROVO, Utah / Daily Herald / Sunday Story / December 11, 2011

By Barbara Christiansen, Daily Herald

A 90-year-old woman wanted to help her family avoid probate when she died, so she deeded her house to her son, with his encouragement. The son then bought the BMW convertible he'd always wanted, a new house, a big boat and other things he couldn't afford. He used his mother's home to guarantee those loans. She lost the home.

It raises the question: "What are you going to do with a 90-year-old homeless grandmother?"

It's just one example of financial exploitation of senior citizens that happens every day. One of the most underreported crimes, a conservative estimate places its impact at $1.5 million per week just in Utah. The repercussions affect not only the senior citizens and their families, but financial institutions, governments and taxpayers.

There is help, however.

Utah is at the forefront of helping seniors and their caregivers learn how to better manage their finances and prevent such exploitation.

One tool is a book"Navigating Your Rights: The Utah Legal Guide for Those 55 and Over." It was written by Jilenne Gunther, an attorney with the Utah Division of Aging and Adult Services, with a foreword by former Gov. Olene S. Walker.

Another tool is a program offered by Bank of American Fork called third party monitoring. Under it, a senior citizen may designate to a trusted person view-only access to his or her bank accounts in order to see what transactions are taking place, in an effort to stop exploitation before it becomes too great.

"Banks need to protect the people who are the most vulnerable," Bank of American Fork president Rick Beard said. "We've seen instances where people have caused problems. We've been giving financial tools to people in charge of taking care or to the elderly themselves. The idea behind it is that while it won't solve everything, it makes people aware and gives tools to protect some of the different kinds of fraud that we see. Monitoring and teaching are important parts."He has personally met with seniors with such problems and said it is devastating to see a senior with those concerns.

Rick Beard, CEO of Bank of American Fork. SPENSER HEAPS/Daily Herald

"It's really hard to see them when they have lost their ability to sustain themselves," he said. "We're trying to put back into the community with a government-private relationship. We're working together to deal with a very real problem. Hopefully it allows the seniors a chance to enjoy their golden years without worrying about money."

Kathleen Quinn, director of the National Adult Protective Services Association, praised the program.

"I do not know of any other banks that are using the third party monitoring," she said. "I think it has a lot of potential. It's always good to have more eyes, checks and balances."

She said the problem was prevalent.

"It's huge," she said. "This is really and truly a huge and still largely invisible problem. It happens a lot. A lot of family members take advantage. It's easy, especially if the senior starts to lose cognitive capacity. A lot of strangers take advantage of older people too. People can lose a lifetime of savings literally overnight."

When that happens, the results have more impact than just financial.

"They not only lose their money, but their sense of trust in themselves and other people," Quinn said. "It may cause them to isolate themselves, which is really dangerous. They often suffer health problems and must utilize health services at a greater rate."

"It's way more common than even we in the field knew," she said. "It's very common, very deadly and very expensive."

Those expenses touch not only the senior citizen, but other family members, financial institutions and government.

"When a senior is exploited, a financial institution may honor a check that was forged. Perhaps a grandchild steals it and signs the grandparent's name to it," Gunther said. "In many cases the senior can get the money back. Or if somebody steals the credit card from a senior, the senior can get reimbursed."

Government may be affected as the amount of exploitation grows.

"Some are being exploited to such a degree they are now eligible for Medicaid," Gunther said. "We're not talking about pennies here. These are people's life savings."

"We're trying to help seniors avoid ill-informed decisions that would bring costly mistakes," she said.

Quinn said the book and Utah's approach are valuable. The state is leading the way by studying patterns of how criminals steal seniors' assets.

"Legal Guide 55 is user-friendly because it avoids legal jargon, it has icons that guide you through the book and provides a list of resources at the end of each chapter, if a senior wants more information about a particular subject," Gunther said. "Most importantly, it gives seniors the education to help prevent exploitation, avoid the pitfalls of ill-informed decisions and costly mistakes, gives seniors peace of mind as they navigate the legal labyrinth of aging. Legal Guide 55 provides simple answers to difficult questions."

Walker was part of getting the book to the market.

"We did a survey showing what older people wanted in the aging division," she said. "It was determined the No. 1 priority, with 60 percent asking for it, was a guideline they could read in language they could understand about the various agencies and departments available, also basic areas to avoid.

"Fraud is a big issue with senior citizens. They're often the ones that get preyed on. The elderly in Utah lose a remarkable amount of money, sometimes through relatives, friends and strangers. If they follow the guidelines they can be protected. It's a great service."

Lest anyone think they are not vulnerable, the grandson of philanthropist Brooke Astor shared his reaction to her exploitation.

"Few things were as hard to observe as was my grandmother being exploited," Philip C. Marshall said. "No one should have to watch a loved one lose their fortune, future and dignity to fraud. This book and trusted third-party monitor are two of the best defenses to protect seniors against financial abuse. They are priceless tools and resources for seniors. A breath of fresh air, Gunther's book expertly guides Utah seniors through very complicated legal issues, including preventing exploitation and makes processes seem simple, clear and manageable."

He said it would provide the help they and others need.

"It will save seniors and their caregivers frustration, worry and heartache," he said. "These unprecedented tools are sure to spread quickly throughout Utah. I hope other states and banks follow Gunther and the Bank of American Fork's lead so that seniors can avoid the kind of exploitation my grandmother was subject to. Gunther has succeeded in her goal of protecting seniors and helping them and their families prevent financial exploitation and deal with the legal issues of aging."

The book is free for seniors.

"Jilenne has taken several years to get all the information," Walker said. "She's an enterprising individual. She got a lot of volunteer help, not only in producing, but in writing the book. It is one of the few things you can get from government that didn't come out of taxpayer money."

Chapters include "Protecting yourself from scams and sales," "Knowing your consumer rights," "Preventing and protecting yourself from abuse," "Caring for grandchildren," "Learning about benefits," "Obtaining medical insurance," "Finding housing options," "Organizing your assets: estate planning," "Keeping the power: end-of-life planning," "Making arrangements: death of a loved one," and "Getting legal help: where to go from here."

While Gunther is an attorney, she worked to make the book easy to read. In certain cases, the information had to be more specific, and she has labeled those and indicated when it is wise to contact a professional. She said she chose topics on which the law was likely to remain the same, so the information would be current for years.

While supplies last, the book may be ordered free of charge by going to

Fast facts:

~ The average exploitation per case is $128,288. For those with mental impairment, that amount increases to $143,068. If Medicare costs are included, that figure increases to $171,600.
~The closer the exploiter is to the senior, the greater the average amount for exploitation.
° The average loss per case when a child is the perpetrator is $157,326.
* The average loss per case when a family member is the exploiter is $125,193
(a 47 percent increase more than the average exploitation).
* The average loss per case when a grandchild is the perpetrator is $45,496.
* The average loss per case when a paid caregiver is the perpetrator is $18,350.
* The average loss per case when the perpetrator had some sort of addiction
(alcohol, gambling, alcohol) was $25,688.
* The average loss per case when a stranger is the perpetrator is $30,219.

Methods of exploitation include both finances and property.
* Scam

* Withdrawals from bank account
* Cash
* Check (forgery)
* Credit Card (open debit card without knowledge, identity theft, or "borrow card")
* Loans

* Personal property
* House (stolen through transferring the property)
* Car theft or "borrowing"
* Rent (living off senior despite agreement)
* Medicaid (exploited senior now forced to be dependent on Medicaid

Case summaries
° Mr. K is a 79-year-old brought to a local hospital after attempting suicide. Mr. K was intimidated by two cousins who moved in with him and forced him to sign over the deed to his house to them. The cousins sold the house for $8,500 and used the money for drugs. Adult Protective Services was called and the police got involved. APS is trying to determine if they can prove Mr. K did not have capacity when he transferred the home. Police have warrants out on the two cousins.

° Mr. S is a 65-year-old who is physically disabled but mentally intact. Mr. S called his bank and filed a fraud claim for $29,600. His daughter and her boyfriend set up an online transfer and transferred $27,000 to an account owned by her and her boyfriend. They claim that Mr. S gave permission. Mr. S denies giving permission. Detective made an arrest in the case and APS is working on getting his money back in his account since the fraud claim was timely.

° Mr. J was reported to APS with allegations that his home was sold for $1 in September 2010 and he was diagnosed with dementia in August 2010. His safe deposit box was cleaned out. Mr. J also has two rental properties that bring in about $1,600 per month. Mr. J has a power of attorney and a responsible caregiver and is working with police and APS. APS has received copy of the POA and the bank statements and made referral to police.

° Mrs. L is a is a 78-year-old female reported to having dementia and living with her granddaughter. The granddaughter filed complaint against a grandson after he withdrew $216,000 from Mrs. L's account. Granddaughter is power of attorney and previously withdrew $124,000 from Mrs. L's account and bought a vacation home. Mrs. L does not have capacity at this time and APS is working toward guardianship and a detective is involved and arrests are pending in this case.

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