Teaching police dispatchers about fraud vulnerability might lead them to encourage senior callers who fit Lichtenberg’s profile to file complaints.
New efforts are underway to combat what aging experts say has become one of the top threats facing elders: losing their savings to con artists and financial predators.
Gerontologists at a Detroit university have created, for the first time, a potential victim profile that could alert professionals and families to which seniors are most psychologically vulnerable to fraud.
And a bipartisan bill filed last week by U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch, a Democrat from Boca Raton, and two other representatives would create a federal advisory office dedicated to protecting elders from fraud and ensuring victims’ complaints are handled efficiently and quickly. Deutch was joined by Congressmen Vern Buchanan, R-Fla., and Peter Welch, D-Vt.
Deutch’s bill mandates that the Federal Trade Commission, which would house the new office, “immediately” funnel elder fraud and exploitation reports to appropriate local law enforcement or regulatory agencies for investigation, something the FTC is not required to do now. The new office also would alert elders to new scams and educate them about investment fraud,
“I am impressed, and not in a positive way, with how much time, energy and sophistication is going into some of these scams,” said Peter Lichtenberg, director of Wayne State University’s Institute of Gerontology and the researcher behind the elder fraud victim profile. “We need to be thinking about who is vulnerable, and know more about how older adults make their financial decisions.”
His study of 4,400 people age 60 and older found those with high depression levels, and who scored low on tests gauging how valued and connected to others they felt, were almost 300 percent more likely to report having lost money to scams or fraud. None of Lichtenberg’s subjects had Alzheimer’s or any memory-impairing medical conditions that can leave elder patients open to fiscal predators.
The study, done in conjunction with the Illinois Institute of Technology and published in the current issue of Clinical Gerontologist, also suggested there’s an additional issue for younger seniors, or those under age 74, who were fraud victims: They were more likely to report being financially dissatisfied.
“These were people looking to make more money for their retirement and didn’t have many avenues available,” Lichtenberg said.
Lichtenberg’s next project is to develop a rating scale and checklist that could guide health-care workers, law enforcement and aging service professionals in determining when a senior might be at risk for fraud. He plans to create public education materials on fraud vulnerability for elders and their families as well.
Jacquelyn Browne, director of the Master of Arts in Gerontology program at Nova Southeastern University, said Lichtenberg’s work shows how isolation and mental health issues affect seniors in ways many people don’t realize.
“Financial vulnerability is an area that probably does not get assessed or isn’t on a clinician’s radar,” she said. “This looks at the bigger picture of looking at an elder’s quality of life.”
Financial abuse of elders has become a top concern for regulators, and spurred Deutch’s bill. Complaints to the FTC regarding fraud against people age 60 and older almost doubled between 2010 and last year, with 115,892 filed in 2012 — one quarter of all fraud complaints.
There were 1,264 allegations of senior financial exploitation in Broward and Palm Beach counties, and 8,477 statewide, filed with Florida’s abuse hotline last fiscal year.
Assistant State Attorney Richard Sherman Jr., with the Broward State Attorney’s Office elder exploitation unit, finds seniors in his fraud cases often are living alone, have a disability and are sad. “They latch on to people who appear to take an interest in them, but then who rob and betray them,” he said.
Experts agree that senior exploitation often goes unreported, as the victims are in denial or feel ashamed and guilty about losing their money.
Robin Taylor said her father, a Hollywood retiree who died at 95 last month, wrote multiple checks totaling $90,000 to a woman half his age who had befriended him. Taylor said her dad, a World War II veteran and former salesman, for more than a year refused to believe the woman was lying about needing cancer treatments and money for other emergencies, and believed her promises to repay him.
The two had met very shortly after the elderly man’s wife had died “and I think my father was very lonely, very angry about being old,” said Taylor, a former deputy district attorney in Colorado, who eventually persuaded him to file a police report. “He felt good being able to help her.”
Broward SAO investigator Joe Roubicek said teaching police dispatchers about fraud vulnerability might lead them to encourage senior callers who fit Lichtenberg’s profile to file complaints. “We hear that sometimes seniors try to report fraud but are turned away by law enforcement telling them it’s a family matter,” he said.