The Coastal Post - April 2000

Identifying Elder Fraud Next Door

By Terri Alvillar

It's two in the afternoon. Do you know where your aging parents are? Do you know if any strangers visited them today, or called them on the phone? Do you know if they wrote a check to a stranger? Is someone familiar to your aging parent jeopardizing his or her security?

One of the greatest chasms between people can be the uncertain realm of how adult children can protect their aging parents without intruding on their free will, their dignity, and their privacy. No matter how old, frail, forgetful, or infirm, people usually want to stay in their own homes and manage their own affairs, until they die. Bringing up issues that indicate an aging parent should curtail some cherished activity, such as driving or cooking, are not usually welcome. When a parent begins making frequent trips to the auto body shop, or habitually burns pots on the stove, the obvious solutions are often avoided by elders naturally clinging to their independence.

As the elder population increases in Marin, more attention will have to be given to all of their special needs. The Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) forecasts that Marin County's population over 60 years of age will increase to 34% by the year 2020.

One increasingly frequent problem affecting the elder population is fraud, or elder financial abuse. Today, a person of 70 or 80 years often has been reared in a more trusting society, one not accustomed to the sophisticated and artfully deceptive methods of today's criminals. No one likes to contemplate being a victim of fraud; however, having some knowledge of the potential consequences to a victim and his or her family, makes doing so a matter of common sense.

One signal of potential fraud may be indicated by a subtle change in an elder's frame of mind. Is someone normally content pursuing her career, hobbies, or obligations, gradually changing to exhibit more than the usual concern about her finances? Is she reluctant to do minor routine repairs on her home because she is afraid she can't afford them-even when it is obvious to others that her home is deteriorating? Does she refrain from buying even modest gifts for her family when her generosity has been customary? Is she exhibiting symptoms of depression for no apparent reason? When you ask how she's doing financially, is she less apt to discuss the subject than previously?

Hints of possible fraud can appear in many ways. When visiting an aging parent, relative, or friend, are there signs that strangers have been in the home that can't be explained? Are there business cards of individuals the elder can not recall? Are there signs of guests having been there but the elder doesn't know why they came? Are there boxes of "free" gifts engraved with the elder's name when they appear to be of some value? Are comments received by the family that an aging relative was seen shopping with strangers and they thought it unusual? Paying attention to expressions of concern from close friends who notice something out of the ordinary can be essential to discovering elder fraud.

Unfortunately, elder fraud can come from any direction; a family member, an employee, a care giver, or a stranger. In October of 1999, an 86-year old Marin resident's own attorney formed an alliance with another attorney and a professional conservator from San Rafael, to covertly force a conservatorship on the man to gain control over his estate. Falsely personating a court investigator "assigned to his case," one attorney gained access to the elder's hospital room and, while holding his hand, served him with court papers for the conservatorship hearing. A family member visiting the same day discovered the scheme and was able to thwart its success.

A common formula for successful elder financial abuse is to "divide and conquer." The perpetrator establishes a trusted position with the victim who becomes increasingly reliant. As the elder's confidence develops, so does his dependence. Manipulation of the victim's thinking and emotions can be a powerful tool to facilitate alienation from friends and family members and to gain ultimate control. For example, a genuine concern for an aging parent can be twisted into "Your children think you're incompetent." Offering assistance with an elder's accounting can be twisted into "Your children just want to control your money and your life." Bolstering the elder's natural desire to remain independent can play into the hands of the person most capable of causing harm. The best friend a criminal can have is an disinterested friend or relative of the victim, or one who is not alert to the warning signals. Not only can frequent visits to elderly parents and friends be socially rewarding, but they can help provide a natural system of protection for those most vulnerable.

Elders are often victims of consumer fraud, such as high-risk investments and home equity schemes. The Marin County District Attorney's office formed its Consumer Protection Unit in 1979 which includes a senior outreach program. According to its website:
(, the unit has recovered 4.5 million dollars for consumers and has prosecuted more than 400 cases resulting in fines and penalties of more than 8.4 million dollars.

The unit's head, Deputy District Attorney, Bob Nichols, advises that seniors can avoid being lured into fraudulent investments by carefully examining all documents and contracts and verifying that financial advisors, attorneys, insurance salespersons, etc., are currently licensed and insured. The unit holds a Senior Fair annually at the Marin Center where over 100 items of literature are available to help protect seniors against consumer fraud. In August, a date will be set for the next fair to be held in October 2000 (Phone: 415-499-6495).

An elder who loses his "nest-egg" to fraud can be left without sufficient funds to provide for necessary health care and housing. Assisted-living and convalescent home care typically costs between $2,500. and $7,000. per month in Marin County. 24-hour home care can cost $10,000 or more monthly. Adult children of elder fraud victims can find their lives drastically changed when they have to pay these expenses themselves. Most painful, however, is to see an aging parent unable to experience his "golden years" with pleasure because he was betrayed by someone he trusted. Taking advantage of all information available can help avoid such an outcome.

Coastal Post Home Page