By Paul Daquilante • Staff Writer • 

Elder Scams: Forecasting a financial exploitation explosion

Financial exploitation can have such a significant impact on older adults, especially those who are isolated or lack a social support system.

Oregon Department of Human Services Adult Protective Services Administrator Marie Cervantes knows this all too well.

“With the aging demographics here in Oregon and nationally, financial exploitation is unfortunately forecast to grow,” said Mike McCormick of the ODHS Office of Aging and People with Disabilities.

Vulnerable adults must be protected in any way possible against exploitation, he said.

Victims are no strangers to Billie McNeely and Devrey Hachenberg.

McNeely is the state elder financial exploitation specialist for Adult Protective Services with the Department of Human Services.

She’s worked 11 years for the state, and most recently, her efforts have focused on financial elder abuse.

McNeely  is a former police officer, serving four years with the Hillsboro department and three with Tigard. She worked patrol and also taught at the Department of Public Safety Standards & Training, with a focus on elder abuse investigations.

Hachenberg manages the Adult Protective Services and Licensing Unit for Adult Senior Services in the state, and oversees Clatsop, Marion, Polk, Tillamook and Yamhill counties. She’s worked for the agency for 16 years.

“Financial exploitation is the No. 1 type of abuse we investigate,” Hachenberg said.

Of more than 75 abuse cases her office has undertaken this year, 17 were labeled financial exploitation.

McNeely can cite one difficult story after another.

“There are so many cases,” she said. “You think you’ve heard the worst. Then it gets worse.”

One older man, seeking an online relationship, believed he was being befriended by a woman who reached out to him.

“This beautiful lady had a story to tell,” McNeely said. “She claimed to be an executive import expert in the UK. She said she had two treasure trunks of gold medallions and emeralds.”

This was her story. If she could export those treasures to the United States, the couple could make a grand life for themselves in this country.

Or so the story went. There was one problem. She didn’t have the money to pay the export tax. But he had the funds.

“The poor gentleman, he sent two $33,000 money wires to her,” McNeely said. “They were lost in one week.”

To her, these stories are heartbreaking.

Hachenberg knows a retired Marion County couple who invested $150,000 of their savings into a business they were told would triple their money, only to learn there was no such business in the first place.

“At the end of the day, they spent their savings and had to go back to work to make ends meet,” Hachenberg said.

Financial exploitation is sweeping the country, McNeely said, and Oregon residents are as exposed as anyone else.

There were 4,152 investigations of financial elder abuse in 2019, according to McNeely. Of those calls received and screened, she said 1-in-44 were referred to Adult Protective Services and/or law enforcement.

Outreach and education are large parts of her job. Given today’s exploitation climate nationwide and across Oregon, she strives to reach the elderly.

“My biggest message to people is that this is not just about money,” she said. “There is a lot of emotional and verbal abuse, too.”

She added, “During this time of COVID, older adults can be lonely and isolated. They’re willing to pick up the phone.”

Scammers, McNeely said, have picked up their game, too, making this period of time all the more troubling.

Unfortunately, scammers are creative individuals. And they have nothing but time on their hands.

The scams seem endless.

From the IT technical support scam to the sweepstakes scam, and everything else in between ... the job opportunity scam, tax scam and repair scam, to name a few. And there are more, too.

“The pandemic is being integrated into scams,” McNeely said.

According to the Better Business Bureau, the puppy scam is the No. 1 web-based scam in Oregon.

Puppy scammers post fake litters online or pretend to be someone they’re not (usually an existing breeder) to take advantage of puppy sales.

Ever heard of the grandparent scam? Hachenberg knows it all too well.

“The grandparent gets a call in the middle of the night, alleging their grandchild is in need of help,” she said. “They’re not thinking. They just know their grandchild needs money.”

A majority of financial exploitation perpetrators are known to their victims. A relative, friend, caregiver. Someone known to the victim, and whom that individual believes they can trust.

An examination of case investigations reveals many older citizens require assistance with daily financial needs, including bill paying.

If that individual becomes an exploitation victim, Hachenberg and McNeely know all too well the perpretrator’s actions can “snowball out of control.”

Embezzling funds is often justified by a belief that they are owed whatever amount of money they stole.

Furthermore, individuals who become suspicious they have been victimized often find it difficult to take any type of action. Particularly if a family member is involved, someone they have no intention of seeing prosecuted.

“The best thing we can do for people is put a hand out,” Hachenberg said. “Lift them up, put resources around them, encourage self-determination.”

State agencies want people to know how they can assist victims, how can they aid them in their quest to feel like they’re in a good place.

“That’s the best feeling in the world, to feel supported,” Hachenberg said. “Getting through what has occurred, and knowing people will help and offer support.”

Comments

Oregonian

I served for over a decade as a volunteer for the county's task force on elder financial fraud. The majority of financial fraud cases were committed by a family member of the victim. It was tragic. The standard case involved an elder person gradually needing more help. A family member recognized that their relative was vulnerable and had assets. They didn't want to wait for the relative to pass away to get the inheritance and they took it while they were still alive.