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Elderly are often targeted

8 Jan 2007

By Tracy Breton

Elisabeth Shanks and Joan Coughlan fit the mold of the stereotypical victim of financial exploitation. Both are women in their 90s, have memory problems and fear losing their independence. Shanks, who separated from her former husband over half a century ago, has a grown son who lives 1,600 miles away, and had no other relatives who were looking out for her. Coughlan never married and had no living relatives or close friends. Her lawyer-brother had taken care of her finances for her, but he died a decade ago.

According to Tucson, Ariz., psychiatrist Bennett Blum, one of the country's leading experts on financial exploitation and undue influence, people over 65 are especially vulnerable victims for financial exploitation because they have more than 50 percent of all the money in personal savings accounts and own 75 percent of all personal property. "They tend not to be believed as readily as younger people," making them easy targets for criminals.

Elderly women are victims more frequently than men.

Blum says that financial predators are often younger than 60 but that a study released by the National Center on Elder Abuse "suggests that more than 25 percent were over the age of 70."

Blum says that elderly victims are frequent targets for financial exploitation because predators know that many old people will never report thefts, even if they discover them, because they are mentally or physically incapacitated. Even if they would like to press charges, many won't, Blum says, because they fear retaliation, especially if they live alone or with the person who is stealing from them.

Blum says that many victims are intimidated by the police and the judicial system, but that some are just too shamed or humiliated to admit to anyone that they have been taken advantage of.

In the relatively few cases that are prosecuted, defense lawyers often try to delay cases until after a victim dies or becomes so disabled or mentally confused that he or she cannot testify, making convictions harder to win.

In testimony before a U.S. Senate committee, Blum said "it is often assumed that most perpetrators are the children or spouse of the victim" but that much financial exploitation is caused by non-family caregivers or acquaintances.

There are two categories of perpetrators, Blum says: opportunists and predators.

Opportunists, he says, are people who strike up relationships with elders with good intentions but who later come to believe that they deserve to use, take or inherit the elders' assets and then act on their beliefs. Often, they have no history of criminal behavior and are family members or friends of their elderly victims.

Predators, says Blum, are people who set out to victimize the elderly. They often have a history of illegal behavior and they often seek out their targets by frequenting places such as senior centers, nursing homes, support groups, churches, synagogues, libraries, supermarkets and restaurants known to cater to the elderly. Sometimes, they conduct surveillance on an elder before arranging to meet him or her.

In recent years, the Queens District Attorney's Office has prosecuted a string of "sweetheart scams" on elderly male victims who were preyed upon by younger women who befriended them, fed them sob stories and then ripped them off.

"The ease, potential gain and low risk of the crime attract many criminals including drug addicts and dealers, prostitutes, thieves and con artists," Blum told the Senate committee. "After obtaining the money, many perpetrators neglect the elder, causing physical and emotional hardship. In addition, financial abuse is often connected to other crimes such as assault, battery, robbery, rape, drug trafficking, prostitution and homicide. Some perpetrators specifically neglect or overmedicate their victims to cause their deaths."

Richard C.W. Hall, a University of Florida professor of psychiatry, says that those who financially exploit the elderly tend to be narcissistic sociopaths "who progressively breed fear and helplessness in their victims." They often portray themselves as financial advisers, guardians, housekeepers, "or altruistic community members looking after the infirm." However, "police records show that they often exhibit a pattern of recurrent behavior, preying on victim after victim."

Copyright 2006. Used with permission from The Providence Journal.

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