Editors' pick: Originally published Oct. 11.
About one senior in every six says he has been a victim of financial abuse, according to the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and the frightening news is that very probably that number is artificially low. Many seniors don't report getting ripped off, because they are embarrassed. Others just don't notice it (a reported one in three seniors will die with a cognitive disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control).
The National Adult Protective Services Association said that only 1 in 44 cases of elder financial abuse is ever reported.
How much is ripped off from seniors? Nobody knows. Take a guess deep into the billions annually and probably you're right.
But here's the reality: a lot of elderfraud is penny ante and that means - in most jurisdictions - it is beneath the radar of law enforcement. The uglier fact: "At least half the defendants [thieves] are family members," said Liz Loewy, former chief of the Elder Abuse Unit in the Manhattan DA's office.
By NAPSA's count, 90% of elder fraud cases involve family members or trusted caregivers.
But maybe another 10% of cases involve professional predators who focus on stealing from the old and they have gotten very good at their work. Loewy said that at the DAs office she often saw cases where "very smart" criminals took smaller amounts from many accounts owned by a victim. Pull $10,000 from one account and that might set off alarms. Pull the same amount from a half dozen accounts over several weeks and that may well go unnoticed - which is exactly what the criminal wants.
Loewy incidentally believes we are on the edge of a cure for elder fraud. "We can solve this," said Loewy, now a senior vice president at EverSafe, a company working on cures.
That cure will come too late for Ohioan Tom Morley, who said he personally had a family member who was robbed of $9,000 "in the last two weeks." Morley was notified by local law enforcement of the theft which is an example of a common scam that works like this: A call comes into a senior. "Your grandson just got arrested in Nashville; he was in a car where marijuana was found. This is Joe Schmo Legal Services - we need $9,000 immediately, and we can pretty much guarantee he walks." Oh, by the way, we want payment in iTunes gift cards.
In that case the 85 year-old victim bought the iTunes cards and is out the money.
"What was insidious about this," said Morley, "is that they used information they got from social media about the grandson to make the story compelling."
Across the nation many seniors get similar calls daily and, always the caller, wants a cash equivalent. This just may be the single biggest professional scam aimed at seniors. And what grandmother would let her grandson rot in jail over a few thousand dollar legal fee?
But probably bigger money is stolen in thefts perpetrated by family members and often, said Chris Cooper, a California Licensed Professional Fiduciary, who often serves as a conservator for seniors, the seniors are reluctant to report the crimes by their own children or grandchildren. "They don't want to be left alone," said Cooper. If the trade off is seeing cash siphoned off daily but in return the senior has company, he/she may think that's an acceptable deal.
Which is where the ideas put out by Loewy regarding fixes enter. Face this fact: elder fraud is a crime where the victim cannot be depended upon to blow the whistle. That's why Loewy said the fix is more aggressive account monitoring by financial institutions. "Elder fraud can be a thing of the past. Technology can be used to detect irregular activity."
The CFPB said similar: "Financial institutions should ensure that their fraud detection systems spot suspicious account activity and products associated with elder fraud risk. This includes using predictive analytics to review account holders' patterns and explore additional risk factors that may be associated with elder financial exploitation."
Very probably better bank analytics will sniff out and stop lots of elder fraud in the near future, just as similar tools have proven effective against money laundering by organized crime and terrorist funding.
But then there is the elder fraud that probably is too small to be detected by the most sophisticated software. That's because a lot of elder theft is minute - a $100 watch here, a $10 bill there. Mackenzie Kelly, a care coordinator for seniors receiving assisted in-home care in Texas, said her best advice to clients is: hide your valuables. That means from staff, also family. "I've found that when visitors come over, sometimes temptation is too much. It is important to hide things such as jewelry and checkbooks to protect themselves," said Kelly.
Bottomline: a lot of theft of seniors' belongings and wealth happens. Can it be stopped? Very probably, said multiple experts - but the keys are recognizing the reality and magnitude of the problem and then taking steps to vigilantly monitor a senior's assets and possessions.