By Sam Seifman
Often, seniors get letters in the mail, announcing they won a lottery they never entered. To get their prize money, they are told, just send personal information. Or, sometimes, someone poses as a grandchild in a dangerous situation, usually overseas, and needs money immediately. Or seniors receive a notice saying they have missed jury duty and owe a fine.
These are among the scams more commonly perpetrated on the elderly.
To learn about preventing such scams, more than 40 staff members of B’nai B’rith retirement homes nationwide convened recently in Portland, Ore. The briefings were part of B’nai B’rith Housing’s annual B’nai B’rith Managers and Service Members Meeting. Co-sponsored by the Bank of the West, the conference, held June 8 to 10, focused on how to identify and prevent elder fraud.
“Training the staff, with Bank of the West, is a more effective way to influence more people and provides greater reach,” said Janel Doughten, B’nai B’rith Center for Senior Services associate director.
The B’nai B’rith housing managers heard from Steven Erickson, vice president and investigations manager for Bank of the West; Billie McNeely, financial exploitation case specialist for Oregon’s Department of Human Services/Oregon Health Authority; and Abbie Stone, the program director for Watermark Retirement Communities and president of the board of B’nai B’rith Covenant House, a senior housing apartment.
According to the 2010 census, one of five Americans will be over 65 in 2050 (about 90 million people), and more than 19 million of them will be at least 85. In a 2011 study, MetLife estimated that more than $2.9 billion was lost nationally to elder fraud that year—a 12 percent increase from the previous year. As the senior population grows, the fraud numbers are expected to rise.
Seniors are often targeted because, as technology advances, they are easier to pick out of the population. According to the National Committee for the Prevention of Elder Abuse, 70 percent of the nation’s wealth is owned by people over 50. Also, many elderly people have disabilities that impair their judgment.
According to the Oregon Department of Human Services, in 2013 the average amount of money lost in Oregon in each elder fraud case is nearly $25,000.
“You hear about the big scams, but what you don’t hear is that the perpetrators are actually often family members,” McNeely says.
According to the MetLife study, 55 percent of these criminals actually have a familial relationship. That is why it’s important for staff members of senior housing facilities to be on the lookout for crimes of this nature—seniors are often embarrassed about being taken advantage of, don’t want to get a loved one in trouble and will not report the abuse.
During her presentation, McNeely discussed the signs of an elderly person who is a fraud victim, such as: confusion over personal finances, ceding important decisions to someone else, or looking unusually fearful in general.
“The shame of fraud really makes it impossible for these seniors to admit their problem,” said Abbie Stone.
Fraud, Stone noted, usually occurs when someone preys on a victim’s emotions. With a fake lottery, for example, there is excitement.
“You really have to keep an eye out for behavioral changes,” said Stone, since fraud “basically shifts their personality.”