Focus, Banking & Finance, and Health Care

West Michigan’s elderly are falling victim to financial abuse

When somebody steals Grandma’s life savings, it’s usually a relative.

February 21, 2014
| By Pete Daly |
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Each year, according to the Alliance for Health, about 80,000 Michigan elders fall victim to some form of criminal abuse — and one of the most common types is financial, in the form of fraud and embezzlement.

Last year, the Adult Protective Services staff at the Kent County Department of Human Services received 19,000 calls reporting abuse, up from 12,000 calls in 2000. The Alliance for Health says many more cases go unreported to authorities.

Chief Assistant Kent County Prosecutor Chris Becker said the prosecutors get “probably one to two cases a month on average,” involving the elderly being conned out of their money. But he has seen national statistics that indicate only about one case in 14 is ever reported.

The Grand Rapids Police Department now has an officer dedicated to enforcement of Michigan’s Vulnerable Adult law.

Becker was among the panelists convened by the Alliance this month at Hope Network Education Center in Grand Rapids to address the issue of elder abuse in West Michigan.

Professional con artists who befriend an elderly person who has money or property and end up stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars are often in the news, but “unfortunately, a lot of times it’s relatives — close family members — who are the perpetrators,” said Becker.

A common scenario is when the husband has always managed the couple’s finances and then he dies, leaving his widow to handle the complicated money details for the first time.

“She doesn’t know what she’s doing to begin with; then somebody comes in and says, ‘Oh, I’ll help you with that,’” said Becker.

Arnold C. Ott, one of the founders of Grand Valley State University, was victimized by a con man he met at a golf course, according to Becker. The man befriended the Otts and soon spent a lot of time with them, eventually getting almost $800,000 from the Otts’ life savings. 

That con artist, who ended up in prison for his crimes, “had a history of doing that,” said Becker. But that’s not always the case. Many times when a vulnerable elderly person is fleeced over a period of time, it begins as a crime of opportunity.

One such opportunist Becker prosecuted was a lady in her late 60s who had befriended a 90-year-old neighbor and ended up stealing from her. Becker said that, in his experience, sex offenders often seem to look the role, but not people conning the elderly out of their life savings. When he entered the courtroom for the trial of the opportunistic neighbor, it was close to Christmas and the defendant was wearing a colorful snowman sweater, as many respectable ladies do at that time of year.

Embezzlement cases like these often aren’t reported for a couple of reasons. One reason is that some of the victims are not mentally competent and no one realizes what is happening, until one day the victim learns he or she no longer owns the home they have lived in for years. Other cases are not reported because the victim is too embarrassed or ashamed to let his or her friends and relatives know what has happened.

Sometimes the relative who is draining the elderly person’s bank accounts has been given power of attorney or has been named the individual’s legal guardian by the court, said Becker.

In some cases, a friend or relative will go out of his or her way to help the elderly person and ends up being paid large amounts of money for such tasks as shoveling snow from the walk. The elderly person will defend his or her action by saying the “friend” is the only person willing to help.

Becker said trying to intervene in a case of likely financial fraud or embezzlement is risky and demands a great deal of sensitivity because the victims often dig in their heels. “It almost drives them closer to the perpetrator,” he said.

The best tactic is to gently ask to see the bills or checkbook, which may yield evidence that can be turned over to the police, according to Becker.

There are civil liabilities for those businesses or organizations that are required by law to report evidence of elder abuse, whether fiscal or physical. An individual who may be a “mandatory reporter” under the law could include staff at a health care provider.

A business that has not trained its staff in mandatory reporting could be liable for damages in a civil court, but it is not a criminal matter.

Banks are not liable, under the law, for not reporting suspected elder abuse, but Becker said banks are usually pretty good in these matters, trying to make relatives aware of possible problems as a matter of better customer service. If they can’t find a relative, they may inform the police.

“Banks are doing a much better job of blowing the whistle,” said Becker.

“Financial abuse is much better in terms of banks being watchdogs now, which is probably a change over the last decade,” he said.

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