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Published: Monday, 7/4/2011

Money theft from elderly on rise locally, nationwide

Lucas County cases up 8% in fiscal year, to 119

BY JULIE M. McKINNON
BLADE STAFF WRITER

A Sylvania Township registered nurse gains power of attorney for an elderly man in her care, eventually taking hundreds of thousands of dollars. A man supposedly assisting a visually impaired elderly woman helps himself to tens of thousands of dollars. Another man takes money to do repairs for elderly homeowners but allegedly never does the work.

All are cases of financial exploitation involving seniors in Lucas County, a crime that is on the rise both locally and nationally.

In the last 10 years, the percentage of elder abuse cases reported to Lucas County Adult Protective Services in which exploitation is the primary complaint has jumped to more than 13 percent annually from 4 percent. There were 119 cases of elder financial abuse reported in the last fiscal year, which ended Thursday, up 8 percent from the number in the previous fiscal year, according to the Lucas County Department of Job and Family Services, of which Adult Protective Services is part.

Tight finances are helping drive financial exploitation of seniors, said Deb Ortiz-Flores, executive director of Lucas County Job and Family Services.

"As the economy has taken the downturn, families are turning more to either the parents or grandparents for financial assistance," she said.

Nationally, elderly victims lost at least $2.9 billion because of financial abuse last year, up from $2.6 billion in 2008, according to a recent study from MetLife Mature Market Institute done in consultation with the National Committee for the Prevention of Elder Abuse.

Women are nearly twice as likely to be victims of financial abuse of the elderly, according to the study. Most victims were aged 80 to 89, lived alone, and required some help with either health care or home maintenance, it said.

The poor economy also has a lot to do with Wood County experiencing an increase in senior exploitation in the last 12 to 18 months, said Paulette Stephens, director of the Wood County Department of Job and Family Services.

Sometimes outright theft is involved, Ms. Stephens said. Other times exploitation is more subtle, she said.

 

 

DON’T BE A VICTIM

To avoid becoming a victim of financial exploitation:
■ Bank independently for as long as possible,
such as by using automatic bill pay.
■ Do not write your Social Security number on checks.
■ Look closely at all credit card and bank statements.
■ Don’t give out your credit card number or other data unless you made the call.
■ Check out contractor licenses, get other  home repair quotes, and do not make payments before
work is done.
Source: Coalition of Organizations Protecting Elders

 

 

 

"Children and grandchildren are moving back in, and seniors are trying to live on their Social Security, and maybe the senior is going without to support the family," Ms. Stephens said.

Said Barbara Van Wormer, senior services coordinator for Lucas County Job and Family Services: "Sometimes it's simple greed. Sometimes I think it is families trying to help each other."

More local banks are reporting suspected cases of elder financial abuse, which along with more awareness of the problem has helped boost the number of investigations, Ms. Van Wormer said. Lucas County Adult Protective Services helps keep seniors independent as long as possible, and they should not hesitate to report problems, she said.

"Seniors should not be ashamed to report this," Ms. Van Wormer said. "We are not trying to put people in a nursing home, and that is a big fear."

It is a felony in Ohio to steal $1 from anyone at least 65 years old or who is disabled, said Robert Baumgartner, investigator with the Lucas County Prosecutor's Office Senior Protection Unit. The unit, Job and Family Services, and about 30 other agencies and entities in Lucas County are part of an organization called Coalition of Organizations Protecting Elders, which formed about a year and a half ago through Advocates for Basic Legal Equality Inc.

Monroe County officials also have created a task force to address elderjustice issues. They are holding a day-long summit on elder abuse and prevention July 20 at LaRoy's Hall, 12375 South Telegraph Rd., LaSalle, Mich.

Gary Urban, adult protective services worker with the Monroe County Department of Human Services, said complaints to the unit often are initiated for another problem, such as neglect, but financial exploitation also is uncovered. "This is a big part of our calls," Mr. Urban said.

Many times, exploitation cases involve an elderly person who may be lonely giving power of attorney to someone he or she mistakenly trusts, said Mr. Baumgartner of the Lucas County Prosecutor's Office. Power of attorney allows another person to handle affairs for someone unable or unavailable to do so.

"If it's the wrong person, then you got all kinds of problems," Mr. Baumgartner said. "They take that money right out from underneath you."

Seniors need to make sure they trust whomever they give power of attorney, and legal documents should be drafted to limit their abilities, said Crecia Decker, ombudsmen for ABLE.

Power of attorney documents, for example, can limit any written checks to $200 unless a lawyer approves them, Ms. Decker said. They also can prevent designees from transferring properties into their names without lawyer approval, and everyone should keep a copy at their attorney's office, she said.

"You can make them as detailed as you want," Ms. Decker said. "You can limit their authority."

In the Lucas County elder financial exploitation case involving the registered nurse who gained power of attorney, Patricia Wardrop pleaded no contest to one count of theft from the elderly or disabled and was sentenced to five years' probation last year.

Among other recent Lucas County senior exploitation cases, David Speweike, the man who wrote checks to himself and withdrew money from the account of a woman whose household he was supposed to be caring for, was sentenced last year to five years in prison after pleading no contest to one count of theft from the elderly.

Mr. Baumgartner continues to gather complaints and other information about Joseph Adamski of Toledo, who was charged this year with multiple counts of theft from the elderly.

Many cases are difficult to investigate because elderly victims have dementia or they have died by the time the exploitation is discovered, Mr. Baumgartner said. Suspects claim they were given permission to take money or make other moves, he said.

"What happens with a lot of these is there are no records," said Mr. Baumgartner, who also investigates financial crimes against disabled people and has helped investigators in other counties.

Contact Julie M. McKinnon at: jmckinnon@theblade.com or 419-724-6087.



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