Preying on elderly: An age-old problem worsens
It’s an old story with a couple of twists.
When we age, strength and memory decline and we depend more on others, who don’t always do right by us.
What’s new is that reports of abuse of senior citizens are increasing, and “abuse” has come to include theft.
Older people are being robbed by their children, grandchildren, caregivers, friends and strangers. It can be as devastating as physical abuse, since people on fixed incomes usually have little chance to recover from the loss of money and property.
It makes sense that seniors are targeted, since 70 percent of all the country’s wealth belongs to people age 50 and older, said Marie Johnson, executive director of Senior Services of Stamford, a 101-year-old organization that helps seniors manage their money, offers financial aid and connects them to services.
When she started the job four years ago, she saw the agency was getting calls “from police, doctors, banks, all saying, `I have a concern,’” Johnson said. “I saw that it was widespread.”
According to the National Committee for the Prevention of Elder Abuse, half of those who steal from seniors are adult children and other relatives.
“We had a woman in her late 70s who was getting a good Social Security check, about $1,600 a month, and $800 a month from a city pension,” Johnson said. “She had a house, her expenses with taxes and utilities and medications were high, and she didn’t always have a lot of money at the end of the day. Still, she was living a comfortable existence. But she had a daughter who was a drug addict.”
The daughter “helped herself to her mother’s money, and even some of her medication. The other children were no help. They took and took and took. So did the grandchildren. The woman ended up with a tax lien on her house and had to sell it,” Johnson said.
Not only troubled children steal from their parents. According to information from the committee, children who stand to inherit from their parents may feel justified in taking what they think is “almost” theirs. They may feel they should take it before the parent gets sick and spends the money on medical expenses, or they may want to get their share before another relative takes it.
“We find a lot of children taking their parents’ Social Security checks,” Johnson said. “I think they don’t understand it’s illegal.”
Judith Heft of Judith Heft & Associates in Stamford helps people organize their finances and works with a lot of seniors. She also is a consultant to Senior Services.
Heft said she had a case in which a wealthy elderly man got sick and the primary concern of his son, who had power of attorney for his father, was about an Internal Revenue Service rule that allows a person to give a gift of up to $13,000 per person per year tax free.
“As they were taking the man to the hospital, the son said, `We have to get those gift checks out,’” Heft said. “He wanted them out quickly because the father could die.”
Some children tell themselves, “I take care of Mom so I deserve her Social Security check or pension check. They take anything with the senior’s name on it,” Heft said. “This happens across the spectrum, from seniors who are wealthy to those with small pensions.”
It’s not just family members preying on seniors. Fellow seniors do it, too.
“I had a client in her late 70s or early 80s who had a boyfriend about the same age who lived with her,” Heft said. “She began to get dementia and the boyfriend, who lived there for free, started charging everything to her. The children didn’t want to step in because they were afraid the boyfriend would start being mean to the mother, and they didn’t want to get involved with caring for her.”
Americans now live longer, and Stamford, like the rest of the country, has a growing population of seniors.
“The prevalence of dementia has exacerbated this,” Johnson said. “It’s to the point where banks are training clerks to recognize dementia.”
Fewer families live in the same town or the same state, so, without relatives nearby, seniors “don’t know who to trust,” Heft said. They may turn to the wrong person.
“Targeting seniors by phone is a very big deal,” Heft said. “Many times they are home alone and the phone rings and a schmoozy person talks them into making a generous charitable donation. Sometimes they don’t tell their children. They don’t want them to think they are incompetent because they could lose their freedom. Many times they will call us before they call their children.”
Seniors often do not report thefts by relatives because they are ashamed or don’t want relatives arrested. So police hear more about other types of theft, said Sgt. Peter di Spagna, head of the property crimes unit for the Stamford Police Department.
“It runs the gamut from complete strangers who are professional con men or women right down to acquaintances,” di Spagna said. “It could be a trusted friend, a home repair person, a home health-care worker.”
The youngest perpetrator he’s seen was 15, di Spagna said.
“An elderly woman contacted the high school and said, `I’d like a youngster to help sort my bills and do errands.’ The school sent what they thought was a good kid and the woman paid him well,” di Spagna said. “Then someone notices that the woman is buying BB guns over the Internet. It was the kid.”
Living on a fixed income could make you more susceptible to scams, di Spagna said.
“Seniors may be more eager to save money or make money,” he said. “Con men are the best salesmen in the world. They call up a senior and they sound friendly and nice, and that doesn’t fit that generation’s image of a con man. They’re taken in.”
About 80 percent of the people targeted by fraudulent telemarketers are seniors, according to the committee on elder abuse.
“There’s another dynamic,” di Spagna said. “As you get older, you lose your friends. You are eager to make new friends, and you might befriend someone you wouldn’t normally have befriended.”
So, when they are least able, seniors must be most vigilant.
“Workers will go into the home of a senior to install cabinets and charge them $2,000 instead of $900,” Johnson said. “They are counting on the senior getting confused or being intimidated or not knowing a better price because they don’t drive and can’t go to Home Depot to check it out.”
Senior Services keeps a list of professionals seniors can trust.
“We get a lot of calls from children who live out of town and have a concern about something that’s happening with a parent in Stamford. We give them a name of a lawyer,” Johnson said. “We also try to convince the children to come to Stamford and check on their parents.”
Most children are good to their parents, Johnson and Heft said. They can help protect them from exploitation.
“Keep in close contact. Sit down and have a conversation about their finances before a crisis arises,” Heft said. “Do it in a calm atmosphere. Don’t make them feel that you think they are incapable. Ask them the name of their lawyer or accountant and where they keep their important papers.”
Many seniors are computer literate and educate themselves about their finances. They just may need another set of eyes to keep track of things. But if they become targeted, things can go wrong quickly.
“We’ve seen people lose their life savings, their condo, everything, and end up living hand to mouth,” Johnson said. “You feel for them. They didn’t see it coming.”
Angela Carella can be reached at 203-964-2296 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Her column runs Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays.