FROM THE BOOK: FINANCIAL ABUSE OF THE ELDERLY
While the number of violent crimes in the U.S. is decreasing, financial crimes against the elderly are increasing as a result of the aging of the population and greater concentration of wealth among older people. According to a 2005 Senior Forum Report by the White House Conference On Aging, only one in 100 cases of financial abuse is reported, and there are millions of financial abuse victims each year. The money is certainly there for the taking: persons over 50 control at least 70% of the nation’s household net worth. 75% of victims of financial abuse are between the ages of 70 and 89. The majority are female, frail and mentally impaired.
The Senior Forum Report pointed to a lack of knowledge regarding scams and the inability of seniors to recognize scams and make sure their financial matters are in order. But victims who are “frail and mentally impaired” simply cannot protect themselves. It is up to the rest of us—family members, neighbors, friends, and those of us who come into contact with the elderly in our work, whether as bank tellers, attorneys, health care professionals, or service providers of any kind, to help them protect themselves. Armed with knowledge, we can take steps in advance to prevent ourselves from becoming victims when we become old and infirm.
Fraud vs. Exploitation
Since 1990 I have investigated more than 1,000 cases of exploitation of the elderly during my former career as a detective with the Fort Lauderdale Police Department. During this time I’ve realized that reports that address financial crimes against the elderly usually conflate two types of crimes, fraud and exploitation. Fraud is based on deception, but exploitation of the elderly is a much subtler and much more often ignored crime. Justice Potter Stewart’s famous definition of pornography applies equally to exploitation crimes: I may not be able to define it precisely but I know it when I see it.
Definitions of fraud found in dictionaries, or state and federal laws, are essentially based on deception. When referring to the theft of physical property, fraud is basically defined as the false and deceptive statement of fact intended to induce another person to give up a valuable item he or she owns. Scams, confidence games, rackets, hoaxes and shakedowns are common terms used to describe misrepresentations and trickery used by con men or women to entice their target into making bad decisions.
“Choice” is involved with fraud and there is an assumption in state laws throughout the nation that fraud victims have the capacity to weigh information and make decisions based on that information. But what if the victim does not have capacity?
That’s when the crime may actually be exploitation rather than fraud. The dictionary defines exploitation as selfish or unfair use of someone or something for one’s own advantage, taking advantage of another person in an organized or systematic way. My own state, Florida, defines an exploitation victim as “a person 60 years of age or older who is suffering from the infirmities of aging as manifested by advanced age or organic brain damage, or other physical, mental, or emotional dysfunctioning, to the extent that the ability of the person to provide adequately for the person’s own care or protection is impaired.” An exploitation crime occurs when someone takes advantage of the vulnerability or dependant condition of a disabled elderly person to deprive that person of their assets. So while elderly fraud victims are independent persons with the capacity to give consent, exploitation victims are disabled in some manner and this disability contributes to their victimization.
Exploitation victims came from all walks of life and every socioeconomic group. The perpetrators often turned out to be those we would least expect: neighbors, spiritual leaders, nurses, guardians, even the mailman or plumber on occasion.
I have written this book by drawing on my first-hand experience that presents a group of interesting cases that illustrate the nature of exploitation crimes. These cases are “the real thing,” based on facts. I explain how to recognize and prevent victimization through better understanding and by implementing simple safeguards. Each chapter presents a case from my files that provide analysis of why the elderly person was victimized.
Exploiters are usually very successful criminals and crimes that succeed soon become epidemic. My goal here is simple. I want independent senior citizens to protect themselves, and the average “Joe” to be able to protect an older loved one. One day we will all be in the same boat and by taking action now we protect ourselves for the future.