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Through my lens… Volume 2

By: District Attorney Walt Merrell

Last week, I spoke to the issue of protecting your children from Internet predators. This week, in a similar fashion, I want to raise your awareness about financial exploitation of the elderly.

Our children and the elderly are, in some regards, the most vulnerable population that we serve. While we do occasionally deal with physical abuse claims involving elder victims, we regularly deal with claims of elder exploitation.  Unfortunately, those exploitation claims are also becoming more prolific. True enough, sometimes the offender is a family member.  I those instances, we do make arrests and pursue prosecutions. More often than not, the offender is an imposter, offering some benefit or reward to the elder victim via the internet or by phone.  In those instances, arrests and prosecutions are much more difficult, because the offender is rarely a local resident.

In short:  The IRS is probably not coming to arrest you, especially if they have never mailed you any notice or contacted your tax preparer.  If you did not enter the sweepstakes, be it the Jamaican lottery or Publishers Clearinghouse, then you have not won anything from them. There is also not likely a warrant through the circuit clerk’s office for your arrest for failing to appear for jury duty that you never knew you had.  And that Canadian girlfriend you’ve found on the internet who just needs a little money to bribe immigration officials so she can move here… she is really a Hungarian gut named “Yuri.”

You get the idea. . . The scam themes that prey on the elderly are prolific, and there is not enough space in the entirety of this column for me to detail them all.

Often times, I see scams that have wiped out people’s life savings. I’ve lost count of how many victims have sent hundreds of thousands of dollars with the promise of some great benefit or reward in return. Those scammers always extract the money from their victim over time. . . $5,000 here, $7,000 later, for they know once they have their elder victim on the hook, they can string them along for a considerable amount of time.

What can you do if you are targeted by a scam? If you’ve already made such payments in pursuit of something or someone that is too good to be true, stop making the payments. Don’t send cash. Don’t transfer money. Don’t buy prepaid debit cards. Just stop, and tell your family what is going on. While arrest and prosecution are usually difficult because the offenders often times reside in Third World countries, you should still call the police immediately.

If you have not fallen victim to scammers, the best way to safeguard yourself is to hold close any financial information. Would you give your checking account information or your credit card numbers to a random stranger in the grocery store who promised you free milk in return for the information? No, surely you would not. Why, then, would you give them to anyone over the phone? Protect those personal financial details with the utmost scrutiny. And, when in doubt, ask someone else. . . someone you trust.  And if a caller ever tells you “not to tell anyone,” you know it is a scam.

Adult children of our senior population. . . You should make yourselves available to your parents as a safety measure. Review their checking and credit card statements periodically. Look for any sizable transfers or odd purchases. Ask them about odd phone calls, and don’t hesitate to block belligerent or habitual callers on their phone.

Sometimes, it is easy for us as children to deny the reality of dementia or Alzheimer’s until it has progressed to the point that it can no longer be refuted. Those senior adults who are in that transition stage are the most vulnerable. Even seniors who do not suffer from dementia or Alzheimer’s can fall prey to scammers who spend much time perfecting ways to victimize them.  Our own pride sometimes prevents us from acknowledging our elderly family members’ vulnerability, so we do not pay as close attention to their financial affairs, as perhaps, we should. Yet, too often, they have lost the wise faculties necessary to make sound financial decisions and become easy prey for predators.

We must do our best to aid them in the twilight of their lives. I have seen tragic instances where mortgages were foreclosed on because life savings were squandered away to a scammer. Too much is at stake to let pride cause us to stick our head in the sand.

In the event that the elder victim is clearly not capable of tending to their own affairs, any adult child also has the option of petitioning for a guardianship and conservatorship over the person and the personal affairs of their parent.  You should contact a local lawyer about pursuing such protections, and seek advice on what other options might be available.  Though, for many, such a petition would be a last resort, it is all too often a necessary one as well.

According to the National Council on Aging, one in ten Americans age 60 or older have suffered some form of exploitation. While the national costs of those exploits can be difficult to calculate, the Council projects the total amount exploited last year to be in excess of $2.9 billion. According to the US Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the average amount exploited per senior adult is $34,200.

Tempting though it may be to adopt the philosophy that “it won’t happen to me,” the fact of the matter is that, statistically, one in ten senior adults in Covington County will be exploited of some measure of their financial security. Please don’t gamble that your family will be immune to these Internet and telecommunications predators.

Talk with your parents, aunts, and uncles. Safeguard your family. And as always, if you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact law enforcement or our office.