True Crime Thursday – Elder Fraud…And a Book Giveaway

Courtesy of Pixabay

by

Debbie Burke

@burke_writer 

Today’s true crime is personal. My adopted mother, Ruth, was a victim of elder fraud.

Estimates of losses from elder fraud range from $2.9 billion to $36.5 billion per year. That’s billion with a B. Every single year. 

After doing considerable research into elder fraud, I was shocked to discover dirty, little-known secrets about indifferent banks, lack of prosecution, and impotent enforcement.

Here’s what happened to my mother:

Ruth, a widow, was fiercely independent and insisted on living alone in her own home in San Diego. After a medical crisis in 2016, Ellie (biological daughter) and I (adopted daughter) tried to convince Ruth to move in with one of us—Ellie in L.A. or me in Montana–or to have another relative live with her. Ruth flatly refused but finally consented to a visiting caregiver three times a week.

For several years, Ruth’s older sister had been taken care of by a woman named “Jane,” (not her real name for reasons that will soon become clear). The sister’s adult children vouched for Jane. The situation seemed ideal since Jane was already familiar with the family and could drive our mother to visit her sister.

Fast forward to 2017 when a catastrophic stroke left Ruth unable to speak or swallow. Ellie and I rushed to San Diego to care for her.

While we were there, Ruth’s credit card bills arrived in the mail…showing balances of more than $15,000 for items Ruth clearly not had charged.

Ellie called Jane and asked about the charges. Jane broke down and admitted she had been using Ruth’s credit cards. She had also been intercepting mail so Ellie would not find out about the bogus charges. After their distressing phone conversation, Jane sent numerous apologetic texts, promising to pay back the money.

But more evidence of fraud kept turning up, like:

Months before, Jane had changed the address for the cable TV, redirecting the service to Jane’s own home, and set up auto-pay from Ruth’s checking account to pay for it.

While we were at the hospital, a neighbor saw Jane snooping in Ruth’s mailbox, evidently trying to intercept more bills.

Jane had written checks to herself for large amounts of cash that Ruth had signed.

We notified Ruth’s local bank. They closed the checking account and turned the case over to their fraud department.

Ellie called Discover and they immediately froze Ruth’s account. They provided photocopies for the past year and we quickly identified many bogus charges Jane had made.

Now for the first dirty little secret: Your bank may not protect you from theft.

Ruth also had accounts and a VISA at a different Big-Name Bank. Ellie and I visited the branch to report the fraud. We explained Ruth was in the hospital and Ellie brought a copy of her power of attorney giving her authority on the accounts.

A bank officer told us the account could not be frozen nor would they provide copies of suspicious charges…until after Big-Name Bank’s legal department reviewed Ellie’s POA, which could take ten business days.

What???

The POA was simple and straightforward. Because of this mindless policy, the bank left the account wide open to more bogus charges. For the time being, all we could do was destroy the card and pray Jane didn’t have a duplicate.

Next, we called the police. Two detectives from the elder fraud division interviewed us. They copied the texts where Jane admitted the theft. We gave them paperwork showing the bogus charges from Discover and from the local bank where the auto-pay accounts had been compromised. They agreed the evidence was more than enough to recommend prosecution of Jane.

Two weeks after the stroke, Ruth passed away just before her 91st birthday. At the funeral, we heard the first hints of suspicion from the children of Ruth’s sister (who had died a few months earlier). The sister’s jewelry was missing and other money had mysteriously disappeared while Jane was caring for the sister.

Meanwhile, Jane had apparently fled to Arizona.

People don’t like to talk about fraud. They don’t want to accuse someone without proof. They’re embarrassed they didn’t catch on sooner. They feel foolish. Therefore, fraudsters have free rein to continue their crimes.

Ellie and I returned to Big-Name Bank where the POA was supposedly under review by their legal department. We were told that, since Ruth had died, the POA was no longer valid and they refused to help, even though Ellie was executor. Fortunately no additional charges had been made.

We then followed up with the police detective. He said he’d tried to interview Ruth but couldn’t locate her because she’d been moved from the hospital to hospice. Not that an interview would have helped—she couldn’t talk and was comatose.

Then came the biggest shock of all.

The detective said that, since Ruth had died, the case against Jane would not be prosecuted because the victim could not testify. The text messages where Jane confessed the theft plus the paper evidence of fraud were not enough.

WHAT???

Thanks to Discover and the local bank that acted quickly, Ruth didn’t suffer a significant loss. Discover reversed all charges. They were responsible about protecting their customer who’d been a crime victim. I feel bad they had to write off thousands of dollars.

However, my heart doesn’t break for the loss incurred by Big-Name Bank that refused to freeze Ruth’s VISA.

After that account was finally closed, Big-Name Bank then tried to claim Ruth’s estate owed them more than $5000, despite irrefutable proof the charges were fraudulent. The lawyer for the estate finally convinced them it would be a cold day in hell before they collected a cent.

What lessons did we learn?

First, it’s hard to prevent predators from taking advantage of vulnerable seniors. Be aware and suspicious of allowing outsiders access to a loved one, even if their references seem valid.

Second, no one is immune. Ellie works for a superior court judge whose own brother was victimized.

Third, encourage your family member to share their financial dealings with a trusted relative or friend. Understandably, many seniors resist because they fear they’ll lose control of their money. Too often, sadly, they instead lose control to a smooth-talking fraudster.

Fourth, glaring loopholes in the law allow scammers to slip through and move on to their next victim.

Fifth, there are no easy solutions.

If Ruth had consented to live with Ellie or me, would this have happened? No.

But if we had insisted on imposing our good intentions on her, we would have disrespected our mother’s proud, independent spirit. We loved her too much to do that. 

We thought we were making her life safer and easier by hiring a caregiver. Instead, we inadvertently opened the door to the henhouse for the fox.

How do you respect the rights and autonomy of loved ones while protecting them from those who would take advantage?

I don’t know. Dammit, I wish I did.

~~~

Life imitates art. More than a year before my mother’s incident, I had been writing Stalking Midas, the second book in my Tawny Lindholm Thriller series.

The theme?

Elder fraud.

After this experience, I rewrote parts of Stalking Midas to incorporate some hard lessons learned. Although the story is fiction and very different from Ruth’s, I hope readers will find truths within the book to protect themselves and their family.

Justice never caught up with Jane. Her successes with Ruth and Ruth’s sister probably emboldened her to victimize others. That makes me sick.

However, a crime fiction writer can dispense justice on the page……

And I did!

~~~

I’m happy to announce the launch of my new suspense thriller, Stalking Midas.

 

Charming con artist Cassandra Maza has cornered her prey, Moe Rosenbaum, an addled millionaire with nine cats, until investigator Tawny Lindholm disrupts the scam. Tawny suspects elder fraud and won’t stop digging until she finds the truth.

Cassandra can’t allow that. She’s killed before and each time it’s easier. Tawny will be next.

 

 

Stalking Midas is available in ebook and trade paperback.

Especially for TKZ readers, I’m giving away a signed copy of the paperback. The winner will be selected at random from comments on today’s post.

For discussion: Have you or a loved one been a victim of elder fraud? What lesson did you learn?

 

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About Debbie Burke

Crime novelist, suspense and mystery novels are her passion. Her thriller Instrument of the Devil won the Kindle Scout contest and the 2016 Zebulon contest sponsored by Pikes Peak Writers Conference. Her nonfiction articles appear in national and international publications and she is a regular blogger at The Kill Zone. She is a founding member of Authors of the Flathead and helps to plan the annual Flathead River Writers Conference in Kalispell, Montana. Her greatest joy is mentoring young writers. http://www.debbieburkewriter.com

36 thoughts on “True Crime Thursday – Elder Fraud…And a Book Giveaway

  1. Great post…but so sad. People who prey on our elderly have zero conscience. They’re right down there with people who prey on our children, IMHO.

    I had the care of my mother until she passed away, and I watched like a hawk to make sure no one had any unauthorized access to her …and she didn’t have a lot of assets to worry about.

    Now I have the care of my eighty-six year old father. And I’ve run into an unscrupulous cousin who sweet-talked him out of two hundred dollars just the other day. Unfortunately for said cousin, I manage his bank account and was immediately aware of it. That money’s gone, but this hawk is perched on the top limb, watching and waiting.

    Have y’all ever heard a hawk scream as it nails its prey? Keep listening …you just might.

    • Thanks, Deb. And bless you for watching over your father so carefully.

      You add an excellent point that relatives often are the worst offenders. They feel justified because, “Hey, I’m family, I deserve it.” Or they rationalize: “I’m going to get it anyway eventually.”

      In STALKING MIDAS, a mountain lion screams during an attack. Your hawk scream raises the hair on the back of my neck. I’ll be listening.

  2. Wow, such a heartbreaking story. Thanks for the advice – my father is 87 and not in a good way, but he refuses help, too. It’s a difficult and trying situation.

    Thanks for sharing.

    As for the giveaway…Pick Me! Pick Me! Pick Me!

    • Sorry about your dad, Mike. Resistance is tough to overcome and stubborn folks only seem to get more so as they age. While discussing this problem, one doctor told me, “They have a right to fail.”

      Thanks for your interest in my book! To keep the giveaway fair, I plan to number the comments, throw the numbers in a hat, and have my neighbor’s visiting grandson pick the winning entry. Since he can’t read yet, results will be completely unbiased!

  3. My grandmother owned a small business and discovered two employees were taking advantage of her. She said at her age she didn’t want to deal with it, so she sold the business. On one hand, I’m glad she caught them early, and I understand and respect her decision not to go through the stress of prosecuting the two guys, on the other hand I’m angry they got away with it and perhaps even moved on to another victim.

    • Priscilla, that is a difficult dilemma. We know what *should* be done to stop thieves but prosecution is arduous, expensive, and often beyond the energies of the victim.

      Hope your grandmother’s life is less stressful now that she’s sold the business.

  4. Debbie,
    Wonderful post about a sad topic.
    My siblings and I are trying to protect our 92-year-old mother from fraud, but she sees our efforts as alternating between helpful and taking away her independence. It’s a difficult dance. As your story points out, most families will deal with elder fraud and incompetence of institutions at some point. Your new novel (like this post) will touch many. Thank you.

  5. Elder fraud is a sad reality these days. I remember the time when someone entrusted with the care of an elder relative or even a stranger could be counted on to protect their charge with all the vigor of a blood relative. Nowadays, even children commit fraud upon their parents. And someone outside the family feels no shame about cheating their charge.

    Yes, I know that’s a very general statement. But these days, you can hardly turn on the news, or talk to a friend, without hearing about this. Our local news station is running an in-depth piece on that subject this week.

    I helped my mother after my father passed away. We were lucky that I was able to provide any care she needed until she went to the hospital the last time. She knew my financial information and shared hers with me in case of emergencies. I guess we truly took care of each other.

    A friend is struggling right now to honor her mother’s wish for privacy about her financial affairs against the need to protect her mother from people who would abuse her trust. It’s painful and sad for both of them.

    When did the moral code change? When did people entrusted with someone’s care begin to believe that if they can get away with it, they are entitled to anything their charge owns? And how do they so often get away without criminal charges?

    I am grateful for every caretaker who treats their charge with respect. Maybe we should celebrate them publicly. Although I am sure those people would say they are just doing what is right.

    I’m sorry your mother was taken advantage of, Debbie. But you and your sister did your best to right that wrong. Let’s hope Jane finds her comeuppance soon.

    My sympathy for the loss of your mother, Debbie.

    • Thank you, Suzanne, for your insightful and unfortunately true observations. The problem touches everyone sooner or later–first their families then themselves.

      Predators are opportunists and they pick the most vulnerable targets b/c they’re easy.

      Thanks for your kind thoughts, Suzanne. My best consolation is my mother was able to stay in her own home until the very end, which is what she wanted.

  6. Great post! I had a friend whose mother got involved with several televangelists and she sent her whole retirement check to them each month until he convinced her to let him oversee her finances. Caregivers walk a fine line in overseeing their loved ones and taking away their independence.

  7. DB, thank you So much for sharing your story. SO sad and it happens more often than not. . I also had a circumstance in my family, where a relative isolated my mother from friends and family, and when any of us did come around , they stood and eavesdrop and then when we left, they convince my mother we were not welcomed to come around. We had all signed an agreement for the property. We were to split it. in her 11 hour of life, said person, drove her 50 miles to a notary , she couldn’t even get out of the car, and signed the property, 300 acres over to him for $1.00. After my mother passed we went to court 2 times, to no avail ,!!!????!!!! ‘they’ got the farm. sickening…how much it happens, how powerful the perpetrator is and how helpless the ones are trying to help and do the right thing.

    • B, you’re so welcome. I’m sorry for the heart-breaking situation with your mother. Unfortunately courts rarely give a fair resolution in such injustices.

      Thanks for sharing your experience.

  8. Sadly, this is a cottage industry that had been around since the time of Cain and Abel. I worked in the Elder Law clinic in law school (a quarter of a century ago) and the cases we handled were 99% fraud. The perpetrators were just as likely to be family members as not. And a very real barrier to getting any justice is, that unless the parent is shown to be mentally incompetent, legally s/he can give their money/property to anyone they choose. These are truly cases where the good can take action and evil still prevails.

    • Wow, Lee, thanks for sharing your experience from the trenches!

      “The good can take action and evil still prevails” really sums up the problem.

  9. Family members can be just as devious as non family. My uncle stole well into the six figure range from my maternal grandmother. This uncle was considered to be a straight arrow honest guy. When she complained that he was stealing, initially almost nobody believed her. When it finally became apparent, nobody (except my mother, and she was a thousand miles away) wanted to do anything about it. (Quote from cousin who knew: “I didn’t think it was any of my business.”) He got away with it. My mother never spoke to him again.

    When my dad was older, and after he’d had a couple of strokes, I watched as he became susceptible to pitches he wouldn’t have earlier. For example, he actually bought a pile of magazine subscriptions expecting to win that gigantic prize. Seriously. Or someone would be at the door trying to sell something and he was willing to give up too much information. Since I lived in the house I was able to put a stop to this sort of thing, and I took over the finances, etc, but it was difficult. That elderly person may seem like a giant five year old, but unlike a five year old that person has rights. It’s a tough line to walk.

    • Catfriend, sadly most families have similar stories. Thankfully your dad had you to watch over him.

      Even mentally competent people can fall prey to smooth talk. We just have to be alert for danger signs.

  10. I’m sorry for your loss.
    It is sad that some people’s morals are in the sewer. I do believe that ‘caregiver’ will get hers in the end.

  11. Great post, Deb. With all of us living longer, the subject of elder care, and, sadly, fraud, is increasingly important. I cared for my Dad and wrote a memoir about the experience, mostly because I was so compelled to write and warn about this adventure. What I learned is that we all need to have The Talk with our elders and family. Together. To sort it out before it hits the fan. My parents were fiercely independent and overnight it changed. We were all blindsided. A frank discussion among the trusted with the loved ones can save a lot of heartache.

  12. I have a great aunt who lives in Michigan and is in her nineties. She’s lucky to have people from her church looking after her, but I still worry. Thanks for sharing this story.

  13. Great post. It’s tragic that the most vulnerable in our society are not at least protected more by the law. We have been very fortunate in deed. My parents have been gone for eight years. They were trusting folks who were well loved in the small town in which I grew up, so many caring and trust-worthy folks were watching out for them as they aged beyond the point of being able to care for themselves. So, no. No issues for our family. But that hasn’t been the case for others we know of. The lesson–just because you think you can trust someone doesn’t mean you don’t check behind them regularly.

    Thanks for the reminder, Debbie.

    • Thank you, Douglas. The inability of the legal system to protect the vulnerable was a real shock to my sister and me, esp. since we had documented proof of fraud.

      I’m happy your folks were in a safe small town surrounded by love. We should all be so fortunate.

  14. Me Too
    My mom has sent about $40,000 to a scammer, so far. Family, friends, the bank, and the police have not convinced her that no money or Mercedes is coming. Yes, my brother and I are going to court to cut off the money.

  15. The whole elder situation is a mess. Here’s my experience trying to protect my parents. I looked after them as they decended into dementia. My dad declined quickly, and my mother was willing to sign a release that I would become responsible for his medical decisions. But my mother insisted she could handle her finances, and the most she would allow was for me to sign on to her checking account so I could pay their care bills. When a few thousand in cash disappeared one month without her being able to remember what she did with it, I went to court to become her legal guardian. I had to hire an attorney to get through the paperwork, but at least she no longer had access to her money.

    When my mother finally passed, I went to court to have the guardianship terminated. The insurance company who held the bond insisted I had to keep paying them until I had a formal release from court, even though I sent them the death certificate. The judge didn’t like the form I filed, but it was the one the state guardianship office said to use. The guardianship office insisted I needed a release from Medicaid that they had no claim on the estate even though my mother was never on Medicaid. They also insisted I send letters by registered mail to everyone named in my mother’s will. I was both the executor and the only beneficiary. I asked them if I was required to send a registered letter to myself. It was so stressful and not the way I wanted to remember my mother.

    • K.S., how awful for you. Hard enough to lose your mother but the bureaucratic mess that is the legal system adds insult to injury. I’m sorry for your loss and the aftermath, also.

  16. I’m reading the comments and seething at the lack of morals people have when dealing with the elderly. My heart goes out to everyone who’s been affected by elder fraud.

    Given my parents are now in their 70s, this will be something my siblings and I will have to look at with them… maybe next time I go back to the States for a holiday.

    • Infuriating and heartbreaking. In Nancy’s comment, she made the wise suggestion to a frank discussion with loved ones. Best case scenario: try to have that discussion *before* a crisis. Much better than dealing with critical issues during the stress of an emergency.

  17. Debbie, how awful for you and your sister. Legalities have made a bad situation worse. This did make me wonder – how much worse will this be as the next generation ages, who are (generally), more computer savvy? Most of the middle and younger generation do their banking online and are used to paying for things online, have email accounts, etc.

    • Thank you, Linda. We went through some trying times but, compared to many people, our family was relatively lucky.

      You raise good questions to contemplate for the future b/c online financial transactions are not as secure as they should be.

  18. Congratulations to the winner of the drawing for the paperback of STALKING MIDAS!

    K.S. Ferguson!

    I’ll be in touch to get your mailing address.

    Thanks to everyone who commented. Obviously elder fraud has touched many, if not most, people. Thank you for sharing your experiences. By becoming more knowledgeable about the tricks of predators, we’ll be better able to spot them before they take advantage of our loved ones.

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