Fighting fraud against the elderly

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This article was originally published in The Crime Report, a criminal justice news service.

Paul Greenwood, San Diego’s Deputy District Attorney, has been investigating crimes against the elderly for over two decades.  As head of San Diego’s Elder Abuse Unit, he’s been a front-row witness to the tragedies such crimes have left in their wake.

“I have seen for myself many instances where victims in their seventies, eighties, nineties, never recover,” he said. “They don’t recover financially; they don’t recover psychologically. And emotionally, it can be devastating for them.”

Over the course of his career, Greenwood has emerged as one of the country’s most outspoken advocates for elderly crime victims. He has not only pushed California state lawmakers to pass aggressive elder abuse reforms, but he’s also testified numerous times before Congress, calling for a nationwide change in our approach to elder abuse.

But the subject is still below the national radar. That, says Greenwood, is why such crimes should be given separate attention in the criminal code.

When President Obama cited the need to train more prosecutors to combat elder abuse at the 2016 White House Conference on Aging, it “was probably the first time I’ve ever heard [a] president in the last 20 years even mention it,” said Greenwood.

“Other crimes– particularly gang violence, child abuse, trafficking, they seem to get the attention of the politicians. But sadly, not so much elder abuse.”

Currently, only an estimated two percent of incidents involving financial exploitation of the elderly is reported, according to research conducted by the National Adult Protective Services Association (NAPSA).

Nevertheless, advocates say that public awareness has been growing.

Over the past decade, all but four states in the U.S. have passed legislation to address elder abuse, and to a lesser extent, elder financial exploitation.

People appear more willing to pick up a phone and call somebody when a relative or a friend is victimized.

Still, Greenwood says, it remains a challenge for public policy: “Once somebody reports it, does anything happen?”

Generally speaking, Americans view stealing from the elderly as a morally repugnant act. It is no coincidence that the 2016 amendments to the Telemarketing and Consumer Fraud and Abuse Prevention Act draw on several notorious cases of seniors losing everything to fraudsters.

But for all the evocative value of such cases, there are still relatively few local resources committed to the investigation and prosecution of these crimes—with the exception of a few counties scattered across the U.S.

Despite the new legislation adopted by states over the past decade, elder financial exploitation is still not recognized as a crime in its own right.

“I think [this] is related to age-ism, to be honest,” Elizabeth Loewy, former chief of the Elder Abuse Unit at the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, said in an interview with The Crime Report.

New York City has a record of aggressively prosecuting elder fraud, despite the difficulty in getting exploitation statutes passed—largely thanks to the work of Elder Abuse and Elder Fraud Units in Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx.

Loewy pointed to the scarce number of Elder Abuse Units around the country, especially in comparison to domestic violence, child abuse, and sex crimes units.

“I felt fortunate that we had one,” said Loewy, “but we didn’t have the resources of the other units, even though we had more cases.”

Brenda Uekert, director of the Center for Elders and Courts, a project of the National Center for State Courts, compared it to the early days of domestic violence laws:

“Those crimes were hidden, because people were charged with assault or battery,” she said. “So if you were to collect statistics on domestic violence in 1980, the crime didn’t exist, [and] the problem didn’t exist.”

Some of the worst cases of elder financial exploitation are not being perpetrated by strangers, but by family members and caretakers who have access to an elder’s life savings.

“Unless you have law enforcement and prosecutors trained on elder abuse, I don’t know that they recognize this is a criminal behavior,” said Uekert.

“Sometimes in the law enforcement arena, and we’re really working on this, it tends to be discarded as a family issue,” said Julie Schoen, deputy director of the National Center on Elder Abuse (NCEA). “Or, they perceive that maybe the older adult has some sort of cognitive impairment, or they honestly don’t take it seriously.”

“The piece that I am particularly concerned about is when there is a legal document such as a Power of Attorney, or court-ordered guardianship or conservatorship,” said Uekert. “Very often somebody shows that to law enforcement, or prosecution, and they say ‘well, you’ve got this civil arrangement, so this must be a civil problem.’ And that’s one of the challenges I think that we still need to overcome.

“Just because this document exists, doesn’t give that person the [right] to take out $50,000 and buy himself a boat.”

Once an elderly person has given money to a criminal in an IRS, lotto, or ‘grandparent’ scam, police often say there isn’t much they can do, said Schoen, “They don’t [treat] it like a property crime or a theft.”

Patrick Lamb, Assistant D.A. of Jefferson County, Alabama, said he was “quite certain” that the majority of such crimes in his county never made it to his office, even though he heads a white-collar crime unit that focuses on public corruption, fraud, and elder exploitation.

“I find that frustrating,” he said.

Since it was formed in 2014, the Jefferson County unit has focused on cases where a family member abuses Power of Attorney to take money from an older relative. In one recent case recounted by Lamb, a man abandoned his aunt in a nursing home and cleaned out her accounts, leaving no money left for her care.

But cases of third-party theft, where an older person is victimized by scams over the Internet, mail, or telephone, are not making it to the Jefferson County DA’s office.

“Even when it’s reported, if it’s at all complex, it’s not investigated,” said Lamb. “If the elderly are taken advantage of by an email, then once they’ve sent the money, what are the police supposed to do?”

He added: “If you’re a Birmingham police detective and you get 20 calls of elder exploitation, they’re all going to the white collar unit, and they’ll have a stack of police reports to follow up on. And if the first one is ‘niece took $500,000 out of her retirement account,’ that’s one where there’s something you can do: you can go talk to the complainant, [and] you can look at the bank account.

“But if the next one is ‘somebody called me and said my grandson was in jail in Georgia, and I needed to transfer $200,000 to get him out of jail,’ there’s nothing to follow up on.”

A scam like this “may be more clearly criminal than a caregiver or a family member,” said Lamb, but “you don’t have a person to charge or to investigate or to hold accountable.”

Resources vary throughout the country, and so do attitudes about the roles of law enforcement and prosecutors.

The Jefferson County D.A.’s office has one investigator for all white collar crimes, and adheres to a more conventional procedural chain. If police never find a suspect, the case never makes it to the D.A’s  office.

In contrast, the San Diego D.A.’s Elder Abuse Unit has three prosecutors, four investigators, and actively seeks out cases of suspected fraud.

Greenwood realizes that “most prosecutors around the country don’t see it as their role to rattle the cage and go look for cases,” he said.

Last year, one of Greenwood’s investigators even worked full time on a local ‘grandma scam,’ tracing the money all the way back to India through prepaid Walmart and Green Dot cards.

Twenty years ago, when Greenwood’s Elder Abuse Unit was first formed, former Chief of Police David Bejarano also created a special unit within the San Diego Police Department to deal with elder crime.

These combined resources within the DA’s office, law enforcement and state legislature have made San Diego one of the country’s leading counties for prosecuting elder fraud.

Needed: A ‘Cultural Shift’

Based on what prosecutors and national elder advocates are saying, it will take nothing less than a complete cultural shift within the criminal justice system to protect older Americans.

“It’s very good to have a case brought to you all tied up in a bow where we’ve got the defendant, we’ve got the fingerprints, we’ve got the confession,” Loewy told The Crime Report.

“But these cases in particular require investigation, they require extra work—because many of the victims won’t come forward to talk about what happened, or they don’t even realize that they’ve been defrauded.”

Greenwood, whom the NCEA called “the DA we all wish we had,” believes prosecutors need to change their traditional role:

“Most prosecutors are trained to be reactive,” he said. “With elder financial abuse we have to be far more proactive— so we have to talk to the banks, the credit unions, we have to talk to adult relatives, neighbors, mail carriers, and obviously the police departments to say ‘what are you seeing? what are you hearing? and what’s being done about it?’”