Financial exploitation and fraud among the elderly is growing, but the practice is especially hard to curb for two reasons: Most of the victims keep it secret and may not live long enough to testify after abusers are eventually apprehended.
According to the Arizona Attorney General's Office, reports of elder abuse in the state have increased by more than 150 percent in the past decade.
According to the 2010 Census, 881,831 people, or 13.8 percent of Arizonans, were 65 years and older. Between 4,600 and 6,900 of them, or less than 1 percent, will experience some type of abuse every year, according to Arizona Attorney General's Office. Financial exploitation and fraud are the most common forms of elderly abuse.
Adult Protective Services, part of the Arizona Department of Economic Security, received 1,839 reports of financial abuse during the 2009-10 fiscal year. Most of them involved seniors older than 65, said Tina Dannenfelser, Adult Protective Services program administrator.
A June 2011 study by MetLife Mature Market Institute estimated $2.9 billion in annual financial losses to America's elderly, a 12 percent increase from 2008.
The biggest losses came from Medicare and Medicaid fraud, followed by fraud by businesses, family, friends and neighbors and fraud by strangers, the MetLife report said.
The abuse may take place with or without the victim's knowledge, by treachery, coercion or intimidation or by simply taking advantage of their confusion or memory loss.
Moreover, only about 1 in 14 cases are reported, according to Robbin Coulon, director of legal services for the Area Agency on Aging, Region One, in Phoenix.
Widowed Angelo Pecoraro lived alone in Sun City, a city of retirees. His son Vincent Pecoraro said his father was inundated with sales calls and knocks on his door. In his lonely and deteriorating mental state, he often would give in and buy items or pay too much for services he did not need.
"Sometimes when he wanted company, he would just buy things," Pecoraro said.
Vincent Pecoraro was his father's only family and caretaker in Arizona. He called his father several times a day and tried to visit every two days.
Angelo Pecoraro often was too embarrassed to tell his son how much he had paid for a job as simple as picking up the oranges strewn on his lawn from his trees.
"I think my dad started to feel really bad about himself that he was failing as a person." Pecoraro said. "He felt bad every time he made a bad decision."
Pecoraro said that once, a salesman claiming to be from an air-conditioning company attempted to sell his father a system for $25,000. His son happened to be there and asked the salesman a lot of questions. Finally, the salesman pitched a $7,500 system, which the elder Pecoraro bought.
Several months later, Angelo Pecoraro confessed to his son that he had just bought a $10,000 maintenance plan for the same air-conditioner he had bought a year earlier. When his son commented about the extremely high cost, Pecoraro went silent and did not reveal any more about the contract he had signed with the salesman.
Two weeks later, in January 2010, Vincent Pecoraro found his 74-year-old father dead in his bed. He had died in his sleep of congestive heart failure.
As Pecoraro dug through his father's paperwork and receipts, he found that this father had committed to about $800 in monthly payments for the maintenance plan, which would have cost him almost half of his monthly income.
"I was really upset," Pecoraro said. "This is such a bad thing."
Dan Burke, senior adviser to the general manager at Goettl Air Conditioning, acknowledged Angelo Pecoraro as a customer with no complaints on file. He said the company did not solicit business through door-to-door sales pitches, nor did he have any record of a $10,000 maintenance plan sold to Pecoraro.
"That sounds pretty bad, and we couldn't do that," Burke said. "We are above that. We are so visible, we couldn't get away with that kind of thing."
He said the company had encountered several cases in which former employees, relatives of employees, or strangers with fake company badges have used Goettl's name to try to con people out of their money.
All about greed
A senior citizen who is aware of the exploitation frequently will experience sadness and depression over the financial abuse and the secret, and is likely to decline in health significantly within the next six to 12 months, according to Jenefer Duane, founder and CEO of the Elder Financial Protection Network.
There is a new scam invented every day, and anybody can be an abuser.
"It is where greed meets opportunity," Duane said. "It's been doctors, lawyers, accountants, even police officers."
According to the MetLife report, 60 percent of abusers are male and many of them are people who elders have grown to trust.
"The real tragedy is a lot of these are close family," Coulon said.
Even if the elderly person is not necessarily gullible, the scam artists are clever and can come up with ways to extract personal information, Coulon said.
Difficult to spot
Unlike physical abuse or neglect, financial abuse is not easily spotted, Coulon said. Often, victims don't even know they are being exploited because of memory problems, confusion or failing mental health.
Unfortunately, there may not be any real signs of the abuse until it's already a crisis, such as being late on their mortgage payments, a foreclosure notice or mounting debt, Coulon said.
Her agency sees a lot of people who have some form of dementia, memory loss or confusion, but are still writing checks. Loneliness and isolation also can make them more vulnerable.
Many victims depend on other people for care, transportation and grocery shopping. Widows who had never handled finances before their husbands died also tend to be easily exploited.
Women are also twice more likely to be victims of elderly abuse than men, the MetLife report said. Most of the abused elders showed visible signs of vulnerability that the abusers leveraged for their schemes.
Everyone is at risk; any senior citizen could be a victim of financial abuse, regardless of their financial situation, according to Jerry Kroloff, vice president of community relations at the Area Agency on Aging, Region One.
Dannenfelser said that rarely are any of the cases that Adult Protective Services receives self-reported. A lot of the reports come in from the victims' banks after noticing unusual or suspicious activity, such as too-frequent withdrawals, with the elderly person going into the bank accompanied by another individual who acts suspiciously.
Indeed, a lot of those being financially exploited reason that they would rather stay at home with the abuser than be sent to a nursing home or care center.
Brenda Bertels said she remained silent for more than a year because her caretaker threatened her with the possibility of a nursing home.
Bertels, 52, said her caretaker would leave her in the wheelchair for up to five days at a time and then force her to sign her time sheets so she could get paid, and also stole her clothes. The caregiver received two years' probation after authorities charged her and had to pay restitution to Bartels as well as pay back the salary she earned fraudulently.
Elder abuse today is where child abuse and domestic violence were 30 years ago, when the issues were private family matters, Duane said, adding that public awareness of the problem must grow.
"This issue hasn't come of age yet," she said.
As part of a campaign promise to make the issue a priority, Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne announced the establishment of a Task Force Against Senior Abuse in March. TASA works closely with other law-enforcement offices, agencies and senior-focused groups to investigate and prosecute incidences of elderly abuse.
Horne said TASA had received more than 500 calls reporting different kinds of elderly abuse since its inception.
The task force has a phone number with operators to listen and direct the caller to the right resource for help depending on the kind of abuse, whether it is physical, emotional or financial.
"We are doing everything we can to get the word out," Horne said. "The ideal outcome would be a dramatic decrease in senior abuse."
Dannenfelser said a lot of these cases don't rise to the level of prosecution because the victims do not want to file charges. Authorities rely primarily on documentary evidence to investigate such cases.
Adult Protective Services, however, has permission to access victims' medical and financial records without seeking their consent, which is useful for law enforcement to pursue the abusers. Perpetrators found guilty are placed on a registry for 10 years, available to the public by written request. Dannenfelser said the agency hoped that someday those records would be made searchable online.
In the meantime, she advises friends, family and neighbors to look out for telltale signs, such as unpaid bills on the table, unexplained disappearance of funds or valuable possessions, changed signatures on financial documents or the sudden appearance of strangers or relatives who never came around before.
Horne also advises any observer to err on the side of caution and call for help if there is reasonable suspicion.
"If there is a mistake, we will find out, and they won't get in trouble," he said.
More on this topic
Resources for the elderly
• Area Agency on Aging, Region One 24-hour hotline, 602-264-4357.
• Adult Protective Services hotline, 877-SOS-ADULT (877-767-2385), or www.azdes.gov/ reportadultabuse.
• Attorney General's TASA hotline, 602-542-2124.
• Report suspect businesses to the Better Business Bureau of Central, Northern & Western Arizona at 877-291-6222 (toll-free) and 928-772-3410 for Yavapai County.
• Call your local law-enforcement agency.
by Elvina Nawaguna-Clemente The Arizona Republic Jul. 22, 2011 03:00 PM
Scams, manipulation, fraud targeting elderly on the rise, studies say
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