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From 2012 to 2019, a former Belmont County, Ohio, lawyer and elected official named Mark Alan Thomas served as power of attorney for an older client, a woman with dementia living in a long-term care facility.
During that period, according to a September 2021 federal indictment, Thomas used his status to convince banks, insurance companies and other entities to transfer more than a half-million dollars of the woman’s money to his control. The alleged fraud continued even after he lost his law license in 2015.
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According to the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), 7 percent of reported cases of elder financial exploitation (EFE) involve a fiduciary — an attorney, financial professional or trustee tasked with managing an older adult’s accounts. The monetary loss in such cases is more than two and a half times that for EFE generally, a 2019 CFPB analysis found.
A financial blow
Older Americans collectively lose about $4.8 billion a year to financial abuse reported to state and federal authorities, but with most incidents going unreported, the true toll "likely dwarfs that amount,"according to a study by Comparitech, a cybersecurity research firm.
The cost is only expected to grow as the U.S. population ages, with the number of people age 65 and over projected to increase from 56 million in 2020 to 94.7 million in 2060.
“They call elder exploitation the crime of the 21st century,” says Paul Greenwood, a former deputy district attorney in San Diego County, California, who specialized in elder fraud. “And in many ways, that’s true, just because of the demographics.”
To an older person who has worked hard to amass a lifetime of savings, such a crime can be devastating. The average amount lost by an older adult in a reported instance of EFE is $34,200, the CFPB study found. In cases involving fiduciaries, the average loss is $83,600.
Fiduciaries who engage in these crimes choose their victims carefully, says Greenwood, who was involved in prosecuting more than 750 felony cases of elder and dependent adult abuse, many of which had a financial component.
“They know the client’s lifestyle,” he says. “They know their client’s cognitive impairments. They also know whether or not that client has family members who are close by, or who stay in regular contact.”
Many older adults’ financial skills decline with age, making them even more vulnerable to an unscrupulous financial professional, says Surya Kolluri, a managing director with Bank of America’s retirement and personal wealth unit.