- By Rosanna Fay
If you think elder abuse scams only happen to lonely, memory-addled old ladies who get taken by charming strangers, then think again.
This is our family’s true story of three brothers — all retired professionals, competent and socially active — who became victims of a con executed by a family acquaintance.
Collectively, they lost $60,000 through a ruse that begged to be questioned. Yet none of the brothers did, underscoring the National Adult Protective Services Association’s (NAPSA) concern that elder financial exploitation can happen to anyone.
Most of the $3 billion stolen annually through elder financial abuse is taken by family members, friends, acquaintances or caregivers.
The media frequently warns older people about online criminals, fake lottery prizes and telemarketing schemes. In reality, though, most of the $3 billion that’s stolen annually from seniors is taken by their family members, friends, acquaintances or caregivers. The fox is in the hen house.
Our fox confessed to owing money to one of the brothers and then offered to pay it back with funds he claimed the State of Florida was withholding from him. Fox said he needed some legal issues resolved and the state would release his funds; there was even an email from the state declaring so. All Fox needed was another loan.
Eighteen months and thousands of dollars later, all three brothers had been entangled in Fox’s web and financial drama. Unfortunately, they failed to question the veracity of the state-authored messages that Fox had forwarded or the identity of Fox’s “attorney” whose emailed explanations of legal issues were garbled and misspelled.
Two of the brothers eventually realized the scam after other family members proved through public records that Fox’s legal troubles had never existed.
But one brother continues to believe in Fox — and still gives him money.
Why They Believed It
Our family’s “young folk” couldn’t comprehend how our elder relatives became duped. To us, Fox’s lies were obvious and easy to expose.
So why do intelligent, competent elders fall victim? There can be many reasons. One stated by the FBI’s website strongly resonates: “People who grew up in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s were generally raised to be polite and trusting. Con artists exploit these traits.”
Etiquette definitely factored into our case, but the more troubling reason may be cognitive.
Dr. Emmett Miller, a psychiatrist, evaluated our situation and observed: “Elders often have small, hidden cognitive deficits that we don’t recognize. It is amazing how well people can appear to function as long as they are doing their usual activities, performing habits that don’t require much thought. But then something happens that’s a curveball and they can’t recognize that it’s a curveball. Because of their cognitive deficit, they don’t question it. Bottom line: sometimes they are not as cognitively ‘with it’ as they appear to be — or as we’d like to believe they are.”
A Broken System
For most victims of elder financial abuse, the solutions are not obvious, affordable or promising. We reported the abuse to Family Protective Services (FPS), but the case was rejected. The reason: Fox’s non-threatening requests for money did not constitute abuse. Had Fox been a legally authorized trustee, financial adviser or an appointed money manager, then FPS could have intervened.
Next, we filed a fraud complaint with the sheriff’s department; it’s been three months without updates or action.
The crime was conducted via email, so we explored the Federal Communications Commission. No dice; the abuse was too small for their wheelhouse.
We tried the state attorney general’s office, but learned that it focuses strictly on fraudulent consumer trade practices.
Throughout our ordeal, each organization in the system offered the same advice: forget the criminal and instead focus on stopping the financial bleeding by having the brother who continues losing money declared mentally incompetent. While that could empower our family to control the situation, the process costs $5,000 to $7,000 in legal fees with no guarantee that a panel of three doctors will find him incompetent. Instead, we may only succeed in permanently destroying family relationships and wasting more time and funds.
Simply put, the money is gone and the con artist is getting away with the crime.
Our family is far from alone.
During the 2015 hearing of the Senate Special Committee on Aging, NAPSA Director Kathleen Quinn powerfully detailed the volume of financially exploited victims (five million per year), the “not sufficient system to handle elder abuse” and the terrifying risks to our explosively growing senior population.
But little is being done to fix the system that doesn’t adequately protect our elders. So it’s incumbent on all of us to help our older loved ones from becoming victims of financial exploitation.
As Miller put it: “The only way to break the cycles that make elders vulnerable is for all the generations within a family to understand the realities of this new criminal trend, to make prevention a high priority and to create a family pact to protect each other.”