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Caregivers often culprits in stealing from the elderly Banks take a key role to protect their finances

They come from a time when you could trust a stranger, and your children and grandchildren took care of you.

But more and more, Erie County's elderly are finding out the hard way that not everyone out there has a heart of gold -- and the network of people looking out for them is worried it will only get worse as the elderly population continues to grow.

"Most common," said prosecutor Candace K. Vogel, who handles many of the county's financial crimes against the elderly, "is abuse by family or health care provider. . . . It's a caregiver who turns into a caretaker."

Then, there are the scams.

International lotteries, phony home improvement schemes and fake pleas for help from purported banks to catch crooked tellers are all targeting seniors who are too trusting and beginning to lose their faculties.

The cases frustrate law enforcement because they rarely can convince elderly victims to press charges against once-trusted people, refusing to believe they're being robbed blind.

"It's harder if it's their children," said Detective Joan Ratzel of the Amherst Police Department. "That's their flesh and blood. They might admit that an aide has taken advantage of them a lot sooner than their own flesh and blood doing it to them." Ratzel, who is her department's unofficial point investigator for crimes against seniors, recalled a situation in which an elderly woman kept giving thousands and thousands of dollars to her son. He threatened to put her in a nursing home if she didn't give him money, Ratzel said.

"No, he cannot do that," Ratzel tried to explain to the woman. "That is illegal. You have to agree to go into a nursing home. He can't make you go into a nursing home."

>Legal thievery

The cases get even more complicated when the culprits persuade their victims to give them the power of attorney or open up a bank account under both of their names.

"That's legal larceny," Ratzel said. "Moral? No. Legal? Yes."

As the aging population here continues to grow, more cases of financial exploitation will follow, predicts Gavin K. Kasper, supervisor of the county's Adult Protective Services. He notes that the fastest growing segment of the county's population is people older than 85.

And although there are plenty of older folks who are perfectly capable of taking care of themselves, half the elderly older than 75 have at least one disability.

The onset of dementia leaves seniors especially vulnerable, willing to trust someone they normally wouldn't and then quick to dismiss a missing chunk of cash as the consequences of a so-called senior moment.

Vogel recalled a case she handled in which a Cheektowaga woman in her 70s appeared at a Buffalo bank branch wanting $3,500 in cash. Bank tellers were uneasy about handing the woman so much money and told her that she would have to go to her regular branch in Cheektowaga. They gave her directions, saying it was across the street from a well-known funeral home. She agreed and began to walk away, when she turned around and asked: "Why am I going to the funeral home?"

Now even more suspicious, the tellers phoned the woman's branch office and alerted them to be on the lookout for her.

The Cheektowaga bankers soon saw the woman arrive on the passenger's side of a ratty looking pickup. She stepped out and went into the bank, while the truck driver circled the area until the bank asked a police officer who happened to be doing his own banking to intervene.

>Banks often spot scams

Banks are often the only line of defense against financial exploitation of the elderly, law enforcement and social workers say. "The banks have been extremely good at spotting suspicious activity," Kasper said. "We do get quite a few referrals [from them.]"

M & T Bank trains its tellers to spot unusual activity involving elderly customers' accounts, said Bob Franz, an investigator with M & T. "We'll see specific changes in patterns of activity on an elderly customer's account," he said. "That's how we detect about 90 percent of what goes on."

As a former teller, Karen Cullen said she has many older customers who continue to seek her out when they do their banking, even though she's now a retail manager at M & T's downtown branch. Knowing her customers over years, she picks up on potential problems. "[They] are taking out more money, coming into the bank more frequently," she said. ". . . I see a red flag."

Many times, Cullen said, she has had to console crestfallen customers who received a notice in the mail that they had won a "Canadian" lottery and all they needed to do was write a check to cover the international taxes to receive their money.

Tellers are taught to delicately question elderly customers when they suddenly decide to take out lots of cash or are accompanied by an unfamiliar companion.

Postal workers also have helped pinpoint phony schemes that arrive via mail. Several New York State residents fell victim to a recent scam by "New World Coin and Rarities," which postal inspectors uncovered, said Al Weissmann, spokesman for the U.S. Postal Service inspectors,

The scam started with an offer to unwary people to buy the coins for $1,000 with promises the coins would double in value in a year.

"They were thinking their ship had come in," Weissmann said. "In some cases, [the older victims] don't want to bother their family members, or they see this as a way of becoming financially independent. With the older population, they'll trust any pitch, and the bad guys know this."

Even if financial exploitation is identified, it is extremely difficult to bring perpetrators to justice because, quite often, the victims refuse to go the police.

In those cases, social workers try to at least put an end to the problem, sometimes by taking over the senior's finances. "We call it, 'stopping the bleeding,' " Kasper said.

>Victims get lectured

Sometimes, Ratzel finds herself lecturing the elderly victims she encounters who are too gullible and let themselves be targeted over and over.

She recounted a case in which a man repeatedly scammed an older Amherst woman out of thousands of dollars, claiming she needed her trees trimmed to meet a fictional town ordinance and then later making up a story about having a sick wife.

"We got notified of it when she went to the bank and wanted to withdraw money from a trust account that had some sort of lock on it," Ratzel said.

The woman told Ratzel that she had handed over her money because she felt bad for the scammer, who turned out to be a crack cocaine addict.

"If I told you my child was sick, would you give me $3,000?" Ratzel remembered asking the woman.

The woman, without hesitating, said she would. "No!" Ratzel scolded her. "You don't know me. I've been here 15 minutes."

A quarter of the cases that La-Verne Blades handles every year as an elderly abuse specialist with Crisis Services involve financial exploitation. Substance abuse often comes into play with these situations, as do physical and verbal abuse.

She also is starting to hear more about elderly victims of identity theft. "You have older people who will get bills for a cell phone in their name that they didn't get," Blades said.

Family members and caretakers are also taking out credit cards in their victims' names and maxing them out. She also warns her clients who are venturing onto the Internet to watch out for e-mailed schemes.


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