Senior Fraud

John Holt (center) and his wife, Martha, listen to panelists speak about ways for the elderly to avoid being hit by fraud during a program sponsored by Wake Forest University’s School of Law.

An unemployed man, 23, moves in with his elderly grandmother, supposedly to help her in her older years. Within a few months, he has stolen thousands of dollars from her bank account and racked up thousands more on her credit card.

A woman on the telephone posing as a bank officer persuades an elderly man that he needs to confirm his bank-account information by giving her those numbers.

Gang members drive around neighborhoods at midmorning and steal bills from mailboxes with red flags up, copying bank account and bank routing numbers onto fake checks.

All these are examples of crimes that disproportionately hit elderly people. Advocates for senior citizens and law-enforcement officials said they expect the problems from such incidents to skyrocket along with the number of baby boomers hitting their 60s.

The Elder Law Clinic of Wake Forest University’s School of Law sponsored a workshop yesterday that focused on defrauding the elderly, with six panelists ranging from medical doctors to police detectives.

There is no simple profile of the elderly person who is hit by fraud, said Cathy Wilson, a clinical social worker in the geriatric outreach program at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center. Victims can be isolated or socially active, lucid or with memory loss, and low-income or high-income, she said.

“Problems are actually worse when the person is just beginning to have memory loss,” Wilson said. “They might be doing pretty well, but maybe their judgment is not so good.”

In some cases, caregivers overreact to elderly relatives who show frustration or other emotions, said Dr. Hal Atkinson, an associate professor of gerontology at the Sticht Center on Aging at Wake Forest Baptist.

“Some level of frustration is normal,” Atkinson said. He urged caregivers to remember that people of all ages have frustrations.

Unfortunately, the number of financial crimes perpetrated against the elderly by their own family members is growing, said Debbie Hall, the program director of Senior Financial Care, which helps the elderly with their finances.

“These are hard times,” Hall said. “Relatives gain access easier, and oftentimes those parents have funds available.”

Prosecuting family members who commit crimes against their elderly relatives is tough, said David Sipprell, an assistant district attorney.

“Just after the crime, everybody’s angry at the family member, but two years from then, when the time comes to prosecute, all is forgiven,” Sipprell said.

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