On the morning after we buried my dad last February, I sat on my mom’s bed while she sipped a cup of coffee. My brother had delivered it to her on a tray adorned with a rose he’d snipped from a sympathy bouquet.
Mom was calm now, propped against pillows, covered with a blanket. When I’d arrived the week before from Kansas City, she’d sobbed into my shirt, still raw from finding my 83-year-old father, who had Alzheimer’s, after he died in his sleep.
Little did I know that she would soon face another loss — one that was both emotional and, through elder fraud, financial.
Caring from Afar
I’d spent the past year worried about both of my parents. Dad had forgotten how to use his cell phone, rarely spoke and slept all day. He’d knocked on the neighbor’s door at midnight, asking to turn down the blaring Statler Brothers music that only he could hear.
My mom had chronic kidney disease and was worn down from caregiving. The summer before, she’d landed in the hospital, her kidney numbers dropping to life-threatening levels.
I didn’t find out until later that Mom had once paid Amber’s car payment... They’d also discussed Amber parking her car in Mom’s garage to avoid repossession.
“Please take care of yourself,” I told her that day in her bedroom. “I don’t want to come back in two months and do this again.”
Elder Fraud Hits Home: Mom’s New ‘Friend’
I knew that my 78-year-old mom was strong and intelligent. She’d begun a nursing career at 40, and later taught herself to paint, winning local art competitions. Mom missed my dad, but busied herself getting the house and finances organized for life without him.
During our phone chats, Mom began to speak of “Amber,” a housecleaner she’d hired from Craigslist. Mom had started sharing dinners with Amber, whose tragic past included her mother being shot to death when she was a teenager. Amber was also a single mother and struggled financially.
One day, Amber knocked on Mom’s door in tears because she didn’t have enough money to pay her income taxes. “I helped her figure it out,” Mom told me.
Then in June, Mom mentioned that a diamond ring my dad gave her, along with her deceased mother’s birthstone ring, was missing from her dresser drawer. I asked whether she suspected Amber.
“She’d never do that,” my mom told me. “If you met her, you’d really like her.”
Amber even showed concern after Mom shared her distress about the missing jewels. “Did you ever find your rings?” she asked one day while cleaning. “You probably just set them down somewhere and forgot.”
‘Seemed Like the Right Thing to Do’
As a long-distance daughter, I knew about scams targeting the elderly. I had warned my mom about phone calls from strangers posing as stranded grandchildren, home repair rip-offs and identity theft. But meanwhile, my mom was sharing the homemade casseroles I’d placed lovingly in her freezer with a thief.
A week after the unsettling phone conversation about the rings, Amber called my mom and told her she’d met a guy who was trying to sell what could be Mom’s rings. That seemed far-fetched, to say the least.
“He wants $1,500 for them,” Amber told her. She urged Mom to withdraw the cash right away before he sold them to someone else.
Mom didn’t fall for the story but feigned agreement. An hour later, Amber was at her door, handing the rings over. “Did you go to the credit union yet?” Amber asked.
My mom pressed her, and Amber eventually confessed to stealing the jewelry. “I was your friend, Amber,” Mom told her. “Why would you take my rings?”
Amber shrugged and said she’d needed the money. “It just seemed like the right thing to do,” she said, before hurrying off to her next customer.
It Can Happen to Anyone
My mom isn’t the only one to get duped, of course. Financial exploitation is the fastest-growing form of older adult abuse, with the average victim losing $120,000, according to a 2016 research report from the AARP Public Policy Institute.
Of 1,366 people surveyed in that report, nearly half (46 percent) either had experienced fraud, theft or a scam or knew of a friend or relative who’d been a victim. The exploitation often goes unreported because elder adults find it too embarrassing to admit being a victim.
I didn’t find out until later that Mom had once made Amber’s car payment and had loaned her money for a utility bill. They’d also discussed Amber parking her car in Mom’s garage to avoid repossession.
My grieving mom was the perfect target.
If someone is lonely or doesn’t have a lot of social engagement, even if that person is smart, he or she can still be exploited, says Jennifer FitzPatrick, author of Cruising Through Caregiving: Reducing the Stress of Caring for Your Loved One.
“Don’t assume that because your parent is a retired attorney or teacher that this can’t happen to them,” says FitzPatrick. “This can happen to anyone.”
FitzPatrick recommends hiring only bonded, insured caregivers or service providers through an agency that conducts criminal background checks and enforces professional boundaries.
According to the National Committee for the Prevention of Elder Abuse, indicators of possible financial exploitation include:
- Withdrawals or transfers from bank accounts that the older person cannot explain
- Bank statements and canceled checks no longer coming to the home
- New “best friends”
- Legal documents such as powers of attorney, which the older person didn’t understand at the time he or she signed them
- Unusual or large, unexplained withdrawals or transfers between bank accounts
“Those withdrawals could indicate someone took the person to an ATM or had them write a check,” says Amanda Lambert, a certified aging life care professional and co-owner of the Mindful Aging blog.
Lambert suggests offering to do the bill-paying if your parent will allow it. It’s also a good idea to request help from friends, church members, health care providers and neighbors. “Express your concerns and ask them to keep an eye out,” says Lambert.
Exploitation Goes Unreported
After Amber admitted stealing from my mom, I conducted my own online investigation, which revealed a little more about her: Amber was a convicted felon with two arrests for retail theft. She’d even spent time in jail — for “biting her 7-year-old son in the face,” according to public court records.
Still influenced by Amber’s painful past, Mom refused to file a police report. It’s typical for elder adults who’ve been financially exploited to not file one, Lambert says. “There’s a lot of shame. These people groom elder adults for exploitation,” she says.
My brothers and I contacted local police and Adult Protective Services, but without Mom’s cooperation, they couldn’t pursue an investigation.
I left Amber a voice mail message, telling her to never contact my mom again. Amber appears to now be gone from our lives.
Not everyone goes into a situation planning on exploiting an older person. “In some cases, it starts as a small incident that’s rationalized by the perpetrator and then it grows into something bigger,” says Lambert.
In a way, my mom got off easy, losing only her pride and trust rather than her life savings, which Amber might have swindled away, especially if Mom suffered from cognitive decline. Not everyone is so lucky.
“If somebody does get their hooks in, getting them away from your loved one can be difficult,” says FitzPatrick, “especially if that person is emotionally manipulating them.”