Seventy-five-year-old David K., single and living alone, had assets of more than $2.5 million that had accrued during a successful career and a lifetime of frugality. In 2016, a neighbor called Washington state’s Adult Protective Services (APS) to report that David was unable to care for himself properly. An APS investigator interviewed and tested David and concluded that he suffered from significant dementia.
Once David’s vulnerability was revealed, Scott P., the unemployed son of David’s longtime neighbors, stepped in. Scott promptly took David to an attorney friend who drafted a power of attorney document appointing Scott as David’s attorney-in-fact, which gave him complete control over David’s assets. Within weeks, Scott had moved David into a long-term care facility, moved David’s assets from Vanguard into the hands of Scott’s uncle, who was a financial consultant, and begun to write checks to “cash” from David’s accounts.
Over the next 16 months, Scott wrote 311 checks totaling more than $300,000. A significant amount of David’s life savings went to fund the casino habit of Scott and his wife. Between the two of them, they visited the Snoqualmie Casino 188 times during that period.
The Washington State Gambling Commission investigated the case and referred it to the King County Prosecutor’s Office, where I worked as an elder abuse prosecutor, for filing. I filed felony theft charges against Scott P. and his wife. The couple recently pled guilty.
Approximately one in every five older adults in this country has been the victim of financial exploitation. Their average losses are $120,300. In total, $36 billion are stolen from older adults in the United States every year. The exploiters are everyone—adult children and grandchildren, friends, neighbors, fellow parishioners, financial managers, bankers, accountants, and lawyers, as well as strangers.
The methods they use to commit the exploitation defy the imagination. These include taking advantage of the authority granted by a power of attorney, as in David’s case, using the elder’s identity to steal from them without their knowledge, obtaining money from the older adult by lying to them about what it will be used for, and developing a relationship with the elder in order to manipulate them into giving their “consent” to give their money to the perpetrator, to name a few.
Though the exploiters and the means of committing the exploitation vary widely, almost all the victims share one quality—social isolation. No longer working, often single or widowed, older adults who are financially exploited typically lack the safeguards that prevent those who are part of a robust community from becoming victims. Compounding their vulnerability is the fact that many older adults who are exploited suffer from mild to moderate dementia. Dementia can reduce a person’s ability to distinguish who is safe from who is dangerous, cause one to mistrust those who are actually attempting to protect them, impair one’s ability to track their finances, and prevent one from making sound financial decisions.
In addition to suffering the loss of their life savings, victims of elder financial exploitation suffer from loss of trust in others and, perhaps most damaging, loss of trust in themselves. Almost every older victim I’ve worked with has said to me, “How could I have been so stupid?”
Financial and emotional devastation takes its toll. According to a study by Mark Lachs, MD, victims of any form of elder abuse—including financial exploitation—experience a threefold increase in the likelihood of dying a premature death.
What can be done to prevent elder financial exploitation? On an individual level, it is imperative that we plan for the inevitable fact that we and our loved ones will age and the possibility we may develop dementia. To protect ourselves, we must have legal documents in place that put our future financial decision-making in the hands of a reliable, competent, and conflict-free professional or family member.
On a community level, we must improve reporting by professionals who are in a position to see signs of elder financial exploitation—bank tellers, financial advisors, lawyers, physicians, etc.—and work to improve the training and coordination of those agencies that respond to it. Finally, we must each do our part to transform our society from one that discards and isolates its elders to one that honors and includes them.
Contributor Page Ulrey worked for 17 years as an elder abuse prosecutor with the King County Prosecutor’s Office. She now pursues civil cases of elder abuse, neglect, and exploitation with the Seattle law firm of Schroeter Goldmark & Bender. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-622-8000.