Targets for the unscrupulous
Unscrupulous people who know seniors can tend to be trusting have no qualms about taking advantage of them, said John Kenney, program manager of adult services for the Washington County Department of Social Services.
On top of that, seniors who spend a lot of time at home might be isolated and lonely. That could make them open to the attention of a caller or visitor, paving the way for exploitation, Kenney said.
Instances of financial exploitation of the elderly are on the rise locally, Kenney said.
During the 2007-08 fiscal year, Kenney's office investigated 49 cases involving financial exploitation of the elderly, a number he said he believes was the highest ever for his office.
Kenney's office investigated 33 cases of financial exploitation in fiscal year 2007, 26 cases in fiscal year 2006, 35 cases in fiscal year 2005 and 26 in fiscal year 2004.
So far in the current fiscal year, which ends June 30, his office has investigated 38 cases.
"It's really running pretty strong," Kenney said. "It's a real problem."
If you combine elder exploitation and neglect cases, Kenney's office investigated 126 complaints in the last fiscal year and 91 so far in the current fiscal year.
A story about the Boonsboro man was published in The Herald-Mail on Jan. 6. Afterward, three people called the Department of Social Services to notify agency personnel of possible financial exploitation cases involving seniors, Kenney said.
The increasing number of cases might be attributed, at least in part, to people looking for easy money in bad economic times, Kenney said.
Financial exploitation of the elderly is not only accomplished by strangers. Sometimes it is family members who, as an elderly person's condition deteriorates, take advantage of the situation, Kenney said.
Susan MacDonald, executive director of the Washington County Commission on Aging, said she believes a push to keep people out of nursing homes increases the chances of seniors running into problems.
By mail or phone
Sgt. Paul Kifer of the Hagerstown Police Department said his department has witnessed cases of financial exploitation of the elderly, primarily involving seniors who are taken advantage of through computer, mail and phone scams.
Kifer said he has seen schemes that involve attempts to lure seniors with promises of easy money, but which really are attempts to obtain personal information about the seniors.
"They're constantly trying to get your information," Kifer said. "They just keep changing the way they do it."
For instance, scammers call seniors pretending to be representatives of companies with whom the seniors have credit card accounts, Kifer said.
Another scam involves a caller telling the senior he or she missed jury duty and asking for a Social Security number to verify the identity of the senior, Kifer said.
Once a scam artist obtains a Social Security number, he or she can use the information for a variety of purposes, including opening credit card accounts, Kifer said.
Deceit and loss
Elder financial exploitation cases at the Department of Social Services include stories of deceit and losses in the tens of thousands of dollars.
Kenney recalled a case about four years ago in Hagerstown in which an older woman had a relative who was helping her with her financial affairs.
The woman was fond of the relative, but problems, such as utility bills not being paid, arose, Kenney said.
The relative eventually took out a $90,000 home equity loan on the older woman's house, but did not make payments on the loan, Kenney said.
In another case, an older man in the Hagerstown area hired a handyman to do repairs around his house. After the handyman realized the victim had trouble with his memory, he started billing him for jobs not finished or only partially completed, Kenney said.
The bills eventually totaled about $40,000, Kenney said.
The first case was prosecuted and resulted in jail time for the offender, and the one involving the handyman was prosecuted and resulted in the handyman paying restitution, Kenney said.