Seniors — one in three die with dementia — are often scammed by family members, police told

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

Elizabeth Loewy, who had served as chief of the Elder Abuse Unit in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, shared some of her cases at a forum for local police on Monday.

ALBANY COUNTY — Elizabeth Loewy said that, when philanthropist Brooke Astor was bilked out of millions of dollars by her son, the amounts of money were huge but the patterns were similar to crimes happening against seniors everywhere.

Loewy, who had served as chief of the Elder Abuse Unit in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, was co-counsel in the Astor trial; Brooke Astor’s son was convicted of grand larceny.

Loewy was speaking at a forum Monday afternoon to help educate police about elder financial abuse.  Police from Guilderland, Bethlehem, Colonie, Albany, the Albany County Sheriff’s Office, and the State Police attended.

“Bring what you learn today back to your agencies and departments, and spread it,” urged Albany’s acting police chief, Robert Sears, at the start of the three-and-a-half-hour session.

“Time is not on our side,” said Albany County District Attorney David Soares in his opening remarks about dealing with crimes targeting old people. “Successful prosecution begins … with relationship building,” he said.

“We all want to age with our dignity intact,” said Loewy. She called cases of elder financial exploitation “truly sad” and said that most older people who have been defrauded die son afterwards.

The penal law has no definition of elder financial exploitation, she said. “You know it when you see it.”

She gave examples such as someone cashing an elderly person’s checks without permission, misusing or stealing an old person’s money or possessions, coercing or deceiving an older person into signing a document like a will, or improperly using guardianship or power of attorney.

 

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer
An Albany Police officer comments during a forum Monday on elder financial abuse as his fellow members of the department listen. 

 

According to the American Association of Retired Persons, close to 80 percent of the wealth in the United States is held by seniors, Loewy said, and one in nine has Alzheimer’s disease; one in three die with some form of dementia. Loewy termed this “a perfect storm.”

Seniors are targeted because exploiters follow the money. In 2009, Loewy said, the net worth of households with residents 65 and older was $18 trillion.

A rigorous study in New York State, she said, found that only one in 44 cases of elder financial abuse are ever reported. That study, she said, didn’t even include people with dementia who were unable to be surveyed. Calling it a “hidden crime,” Loewy said that, on average, victims lose $120,300 each.

So many cases go unreported, she said, because the victim is embarrassed to have been duped. Another reason is because it is often a family member that is taking advantage of the elderly person; parents don’t want to report their kids, she said.

An even larger issue, Loewy said, is “the cognitive issue.” Seventy percent of defendants in prosecuted cases are family members or caregivers of the victim. Often, she said, a younger family member exploiting a senior has drug or alcohol problems.

“Most of these folks are lonely,” Loewy said of the victims. “They’d pay the devil just to have company.” Or, she said, if they speak up, they’re afraid they’ll be sent to a nursing home.

 

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer
Forensic accountant Karen Webber, left, listens to Carman Rotella, an officer with the Plattsburgh Police Department who helped develop the Clinton County multidisciplinary team.

Loewy showed a picture of a pretty young woman named Cher who was in a relationship with three different older men — one was brain injured and another had dementia. She showed a picture of a young man with a “choir-boy face” who, as an accountant, over the course of five years stole $1.2 million from a Holocaust survivor who subsequently died.

She went on to explain how she built the case against Brooke Astor’s only son, Anthony Marshall, by gathering many witnesses. Marshall was his mother’s health-care proxy and also had power of attorney. She interviewed the doctor who had diagnosed Astor with Alzheimer’s.

The first thing Marshall said to the doctor on receiving the diagnosis was, “Can she still do a will?” reported Loewy. Marshall then had his mother sign a codicil, directing money that had been willed to go to charity to go instead to him, Loewy said.

“Paintings that were to go to a museum, he took off the wall,” Loewy said.

Loewy displayed a New York Post front page, which ran during the trial, that showed a picture of Marshall with wind-blown hair. The large type said, “Bad Heir Day.”

One of the 90 witnesses in the Astor case was journalist Barbara Walters who had visited Astor the day before she signed the codicil. “She couldn’t speak a word; she could only gurgle,” Loewy recalled Walters saying of the state in which she’d found Astor.

Walters also testified that, as she was leaving Astor, Astor gave back the gift Walters had just brought her as if it were her gift to Walters, Loewy said, noting this is typical behavior for many older people with Alzheimer’s. This makes it easy for them to be exploited.

So, although few cases garner the headlines that Astor’s did, Loewy said the message is the same: Relatives are the largest exploiters of seniors.

Further, as with the Astor case, it’s best to keep the victims off the witness stand; rather, she advised, build the case against the exploiter with others who have witnessed the decline.

Loewy went over a series of “red flags” or warning signs that can alert police or family members or friends to elder abuse. One is changes in financial activity with, for example, a new person with power of attorney or an unexpected change of beneficiary, or closing accounts or making early withdrawals without regard to penalties.

Police were also advised to focus on a senior’s vulnerability with an eye to his or her companions, to look for changes in clothing, demeanor, or conversation; or to pay attention if there is a new caregiver or “best friend”; and to take note if the senior appears frightened or fearful or submissive with a companion.

Loewy also went over a series of 10 common scams, ranging from a couple who withdrew money for roof repairs they didn’t need to  “a Fulbright Scholar that fell for the Nigerian Prince.” She displayed an email that she herself had received, soliciting funds.

Since the spring of 2015, The Enterprise has covered the story of what the district attorney’s office termed a “hate-crime ring,” which targeted elderly people. The ring members went to homes of seniors, asked to do work for them, got paid, and then either did not complete the work or did no work at all. The last member of the ring to be sentenced — in January to six to 12 years in state prison — was Frank Chrysler who took a woman who suffered from decreased mental capacity to a local bank twice, having her withdraw $5,000 each time, and then took the $10,000 without her permission.

Loewy said her own father did not call her right away when he received a fake call from his “grandson.” The scammer used the boy’s name, said not to tell his mom, and that he had been arrested and needed money.

Last spring, The Enterprise detailed a similar scam in which a Knox resident had received a call, saying that her grandson needed bail money; she handed over $8,000 in gift cards as she had been directed.

Several of these scams were highlighted last June during a session at the Guilderland Public Library, attended by about 140 people, intended to make seniors wary.

Loewy on Monday went over some of the issues in prosecuting fraud. In addition to cognitive issues, sometimes a victim is in denial, she said.

Adult Protective Services is a mandated service provided by local social-services districts. APS investigates and assesses referrals of abuse, neglect, and financial exploitation of impaired, vulnerable adults.

“Technology can help your victim,” said Loewy. She said she left her job as a prosecutor and went to work for EverSafe because she had family members in her office crying and financial institutions couldn’t detect the problems earlier, she said.

She went over some of the ways technology can protect against elder fraud, such as by call monitoring, having prepaid debit cards, monitoring habits, and helping pay bills on time.

Loewy said she met Howard Tischler, who became the chief executive officer of EverSafe, when his elderly mother was exploited. He developed a product to monitor for seniors, creating a personal profile for each and sending out alerts across accounts if there are irregularities. Tischler and Loewy co-founded EverSafe. She serves as the company’s general counsel.

The forum also featured Carman Rotella, an officer with the Plattsburgh Police Department who helped develop the Clinton County multidisciplinary team, and Karen Webber, a forensic accountant who founded her own business, Webber CPA, PLLC.

Webber and her staff participate in multidisciplinary elder-abuse teams across New York State, consulting on financial exploitation cases, reviewing documents, issuing reports of their findings, and providing testimony for court proceedings.

The forum, hosted by the Albany Abuse in Later Life Team, was funded by a federal grant from the Office on Violence Against Women.

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