NEW YORK (MainStreet) — It used to be that Theresa Lyons bartered with the elderly relatives in her family.
“My aging mother and her sister were helping me pay the rent, gas and electricity bills and I would take them out to eat and drive them around to where they needed to go,” said the single mother of three children.
That was until 2011 when Blanca Tozzo, Lyons’s aunt, passed away and her mother, Carmen Hernandez Tozzo, was placed in a retirement home in Florida once the Department of Children and Families (DCF) stepped in.
“I have no access to my mom's finances,” Lyons told MainStreet. “The only way I can get any money is through a subpoena and blessings from the probate judge.”
Once Tozzo became a ward of the state under a professional guardian, Lyons said most of her mother's $100,000 in retirement savings was drained.
“The guardian isolated and drugged my mom, placed her in a lock down area with mentally ill and psychotic patients where she suffered dozens of falls, cuts, bruises and was almost killed by one of the male residents,” said Lyons, who is in her 50s. “When I complained, my visitation was taken away.”
Lyons’s mother is among the senior citizens losing some $36.48 billion each year to elder financial abuse, according to a True Link study called Friendly Grandparent Syndrome.
“These numbers indicate how the guardianship industry destroys the legitimate inter-generational transfer of wealth and in the process irreparably damages entire generations of innocent families,” said Dr. Sam Sugar, founder of the Americans Against Abusive Probate Guardianship (AAAPG) in Miami.
That’s 12 times more than the previously reported $2.9 billion, because elders are ashamed and humiliated and in some cases drugged while residing in a retirement home.
“They often refuse to report this crime,” said Jack Halpern, CEO of My Elder Advocate, a franchise that works with families to solve elder care-related crises. “Elder financial abuse is probably the most unreported crime in the country.”
Some $16.9 billion of these losses a year comes from deceptive but technically legal tactics designed specifically to take advantage of older Americans, according to the 2015 True Link Report on Financial Elder Abuse. “This crime is shielded from public view because the criminal is most often a lawyer in probate court,” said Kristi Hood, author of the book Probate Pirates (JKH Publishing, 2015). “The probate pirate attorney either directly or indirectly finds a way to pick the pockets of the elderly ward of the state, taking money that should be used to care for the person or charging their adult children exorbitant legal fees for help.”
Uncannily similar to organized crime defined in the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act of 1970 (RICO), probate piracy can involve the involuntary redistribution of assets, which is also known as property poaching, with the elderly person becoming the enterprise that is defrauded.
A friendly senior with cognitive issues can be a potential gold mine for unscrupulous charities, probate courts, home repair scammers, retirement homes, neighbors and even distant family members.
Baby Boomers and Gen X-ers are reportedly expected to be the recipients of some $41 trillion from their World War 2 generation parents as they pass away.
"The transfer of wealth is going to last for the next 30 to 40 years," said Dan McElwee, certified financial planner and executive vice president with Ventura Wealth Management.
But an elderly adult who is extremely friendly is four times more likely to fall victim to high amounts of senior financial fraud.
“Those of us working in the field have long known that the United States is in the throes of an elder financial abuse epidemic,” said Shawna Reeves, director of elder abuse prevention at the Institute of Aging.
Adult Millennial and Gen X children who find their elderly Boomer and World War II-generation parents have been targeted with legal tactics designed to rob them can report the fraud to their local district attorney’s office, consumer protection agency, the state attorney general and even the local FBI office.
“We are all affected by these scams,” Halpern told MainStreet. “When an elder loses their assets to scam and they need care, they will have to look to welfare and Medicaid.”
—Written by Juliette Fairley for MainStreet