by Joe Roubicek
Financial exploitation of the elderly is a crime that focuses on the perverting, or taking advantage, of a person’s disabilities for financial gain. This is not “economic crime” in the generic sense of the word; indeed, it is much, much more. Exploitation invites abuse and neglect during the process of stealing an elderly person’s assets. For me, the real victimization inherent in exploitation crimes is not the theft of a victim’s assets, but rather the battering and theft of their dignity even as those assets are stolen.
I have investigated more cases than I can count in which victims are left not just penniless, but emotionally and physically devastated as well… and without dignity. To illustrate this devastation, here are a few examples from my book, “Financial Abuse of the Elderly; A Detective’s Case Files of Exploitation Crimes,” Ruby House, pub. 2008:
• Fort Lauderdale police break open the door of a residence only to find an elderly woman suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. She is abandoned, lying on her living room floor covered with ants. Rushed to the hospital they diagnose her as being severely dehydrated, with broken ribs; her brain has become atrophied. All of her assets, including her home, had recently been signed over to a local businessman, a “Good Samaritan” who befriended her, became her caretaker, and said he loved her like a mother. But this “Good Samaritan” stole her dignity and left her to die.
• In another case, Pompano Beach police responded to the home of a wheelchair-bound elderly man only to find him lying on his kitchen floor severely battered and covered with pepper spray. This crippled man had recently returned home from a two-week hospital stay, and during his visit, a predatory nurse had stolen his checkbook and went on a $20,000 spending spree. When she ran out of checks she paid him a very nasty visit in his home, leaving him in the state in which the police found him.
• Finally, a bedridden elderly woman makes a gift of every penny she has to a prominent local priest who romances her. When she realizes that she is flat broke, she asks him for a few thousand dollars back. He refuses and warns her that there is nothing she can do about it. This woman attempts suicide.
When you think about it, it’s not that difficult to understand that she likely didn’t try to kill herself just because of the money. Far more devastating was her stolen dignity. And this “poor priest” turned out to have made himself into a multi-millionaire by similarly exploiting other elderly parishioners.
Fraud vs. Exploitation
Realizing that this insidious billion-dollar crime—which has grown exponentially in our country—is really not “just about the money” allows us to better understand the concept and the correct definition of financial exploitation.
Reports which address financial crimes against the elderly usually conflate two types of crimes: fraud and exploitation. Definitions of fraud found in dictionaries or in state and federal statutes are essentially based on deception. “Scams,” “confidence games,” “rackets,” “hoaxes” and “shakedowns” are terms commonly used to describe the misrepresentations and trickery employed by con artists to entice their targets into making bad decisions.
In the case of fraud, “choice” is involved; there is an assumption in state laws that fraud victims have the capacity to weigh information and make decisions based on that information. But what if the victim lacks this capacity? What if the language used to provide the information was framed to mislead?
That is when we are faced with crimes of exploitation. Those crimes involve taking advantage of a person’s disability, which can often simply be the inability to make a reasoned financial decision.
Today, Florida, defines an exploitation victim as “a person 60 years of age or older who is suffering from the infirmities of aging as manifested by advanced age or organic brain damage, or other physical, mental, or emotional dysfunctioning, to the extent that the ability of the person to provide adequately for the person's own care or protection is impaired.”
So, while elderly fraud victims are independent persons with the capacity to give consent, exploitation victims are in some manner disabled. In other words, their disabilities contribute to their victimization.
There are two common characteristics among victims of exploitation crimes. The first is mental infirmity. Exploitation victims who suffer short-term memory loss or other mental infirmities—thus lacking the capacity to give consent—often live alone. They normally appear timid, trusting, and anxious, and are almost always unaware that they have, in fact, been victimized. They often become embarrassed when confronted with the issue of their memory loss, and try to hide it with excuses and rationalizations. When told they have been cheated, they generally do not want to prosecute and often feel as if it is they who have done something wrong. These are the perfect victims.
Then there are those victims who are mentally capable but suffer from physical disabilities. They know that their trust was violated. They desire prosecution, sometimes passionately; usually make good, reliable witnesses; and often show resolve to see the matter through the legal system. Ironically, the biggest stumbling block to this can be their physical infirmities because some of these victims don’t live long enough for their cases to reach the courts.
Exploiters are frequently those who provide services to the elderly... or not. Exploiters can be professionals who make a living out of providing services or they may just be unscrupulous opportunists. They may be caretakers, financial advisors, family members or simply neighbors. I have investigated attorneys, religious leaders, fellow police officers, guardians, geriatric case managers and even other senior citizens for the crime of exploiting the elderly.
The common predator takes on an altruistic role—a rationalizer and manipulator who plays the part of a do-gooder throughout the commission of the crime. Their most obvious trait is that they keep taking and taking, all the while claiming to be giving, loving and sacrificing for the victim. They usually come into the victim’s life in some type of caretaker role. Frequently, they contradict themselves by claiming that the victim is competent when he/she is clearly not. However, if the victim lodges a complaint or accusation, the predator will insist that the elderly person is “confused.” They insist that the victim’s assets were “gifts,” “loans” or “payment for services rendered.” They isolate the victim while claiming that they are protecting him or her. They are effective, ruthless and without conscience.
Crimes against the elderly, even when properly reported to authorities often fall through the cracks. Even worse, unreported crimes against the elderly allow predators to continue the victimization unabated and without conscience.
These swindlers historically target and victimize the elderly because there is little risk of suffering the consequences.
I believe that awareness, having a correct understanding of this crime, is crucial for all of us to be able to deal with it effectively. The aging process is a disabling process and we are all destined to be potential victims. No man is an island and despite our confusion and maybe even denial, we all need to be aware of this epidemic crime. Together, we can get state laws passed which will specifically protect the elderly from financial exploitation. Together, we can cause law enforcement to respond responsibly to exploitation complaints and give prosecutors the tools they need to prosecute offenders. We can develop an effective relationship between the civil probate courts and law enforcement agencies for necessary criminal investigations. Together, we can give the elderly population the representation they deserve.
Soon, today’s baby boomers will enter the ranks of the elderly, thus potentially becoming tomorrow’s victims. We’re all in the same boat, no matter what our ages. I ended my book with a quote taken from the 16th century poet, John Donne.
…I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for
whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
Donne is saying that whatever affects one of us affects us all. And the way that we deal with elderly crimes today reflects on the type of people that we are now and will have a direct bearing on our own personal safety tomorrow.
Coming up next: Problems, Preventions and Solutions.