When you think of the villains who defraud older people, you might picture crooks hacking into bank accounts or selling bogus stocks. But don’t be misled.
The real scoundrels might be sitting at your next family gathering, looking as innocent as folks in a Norman Rockwell painting. Roughly 6 out of 10 cases of elder financial abuse are committed by relatives, according to a large-scale 2014 study. And about 3 out of 10 instances can be traced to friends, neighbors or home care aides. In other words, 90 percent of perpetrators of fraud are known to their victims.
Even scarier: The closer the tie between perpetrator and victim, the greater the damage. A detailed study of elder financial abuse in Utah found that the amount stolen by people who knew their victim averaged $116,000 — nearly triple the haul taken by strangers. Criminals within the family got even more: $148,000. And the thieves who stole the most money — $262,000, on average — were the victims’ children.
Maybe you thought such thefts occurred only among the rich and famous — think of Brooke Astor, the New York heiress whose son was convicted of swindling her.
But elder-abuse experts say this crime infects a wide range of households. You just don’t hear about it. Only 1 in 44 cases of elder financial abuse get reported, estimates the National Adult Protective Services Association. Why? Victims are embarrassed. Families don’t want to air conflicts. People doubt money will be recovered. They also fear the perpetrator.
What follows is an attempt to spotlight this scourge — with true stories of exploitation, plus advice for preventing and remedying it. Our narratives are based on witness interviews, legal records and other documents. Due to some sources’ fear of retaliation, some identities have been disguised.
The Distant Son
In 2005, 88-year-old Francine Maloney was suffering from dementia and about to move to an Orange County, California, assisted living facility. (All names in this family have been changed.) Maloney had given her daughter, Amy, power of attorney to handle her affairs in 2000, a year after Francine’s husband had died. Amy, also from California, put her mother’s home up for sale.
Then Amy’s only sibling, Randy, got involved. His relationship with their parents had always been strained, and he had an alcohol problem they were slow to recognize, Amy says. In 2005, Randy was living with his wife, Madeline, in Westchester County, New York, and hadn’t been around much. But when he learned the house had to be sold, he became attentive—fast, Amy recalls. Unbeknownst to Amy, he flew west and got Francine to sign a new power of attorney giving him total control over her finances. Amy consulted a lawyer about fighting back, but the $10,000 retainer was too much. She and her brother stopped talking.
Once the house was sold, the $450,000 proceeds went into a trust for Francine’s benefit, controlled by Randy. In theory, Francine had plenty of money. Amy, however, suspected something was amiss. Yet a lawyer was too expensive, and she doubted social service agencies could help. So she communicated her concerns to Randy via his attorney and left it at that.
That is, until she visited her mother in May 2010 and found a fraud-alert notice for a Bank of America credit card in her mother's name. The letter listed more than two dozen suspicious charges, including $1,135 from a Boston hotel, a $372 Boston car rental and a $250 dry cleaning bill in Maryland where Randy then lived. Amy later determined that Randy had additionally revived a dormant Citibank credit card of Francine’s and was using it to pay for his living expenses. Payments to that account, Amy concluded, were coming from her mother’s trust account. By mid-2010, the account that had been seeded with $450,000 from the sale of Francine’s home had dwindled to $158.51—and the assisted living facility was owed nearly $9,500. Francine was broke.
After Amy filed a police report in June 2010, the local California sheriff’s office subpoenaed checks drawn on the trust account. One expenditure: $9,100 to a luxury-car dealer. Checks made out to Randy’s wife totaled $35,000.
“I wasn’t shocked,” Amy says.
Contacted for this article, Randy said he is 14 years sober. He disputed the overall amount Amy alleges he took from Francine’s account, asserting it was in the “low-six-figure range.” But he admitted via email that he took the money for his personal expenses and expressed remorse, terming his behavior “the most regrettable thing in my life.” He wrote, “I was under some financial pressures that I was too weak to stand up to. … The intention was always that the money would be returned from future realized gains.”
In the end, he got away with it. The sheriff in California told Amy the prosecutor had declined to pursue the case; the D.A., contacted for this article, has no record of the sheriff's referral. Prosecutors in Maryland passed as well, suggesting Francine wouldn’t be able to fly east to testify. The FBI said no, too. Amy could not afford to file a civil suit against her brother. “He is dead to me,” she says. “How can you do that — steal from your mother for luxuries?”
Eventually, Francine had to leave the assisted living facility. Because she couldn’t afford a nursing home, Amy placed her mother in a Social Security–financed small-scale custodial-care facility, a converted private home. Care was barely adequate. Francine died in February 2016, at age 99. “None of us would want to live like that,” Amy says.