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Wednesday, July 14, 2021

HANGING WITH THE BIG GUNS

Oh, yeah! I'm beyond thrilled that my short story will appear alongside great crime authors. Below is a repost of the announcement by Mystery Writers of America (with permission).

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The Publications Committee of Mystery Writers of America is thrilled to announce the full list of contributors for the next MWA anthology, CRIME HITS HOME, edited by S.J. Rozan and forthcoming from HarperCollins in 2022. Ten MWA members earned a spot in the collection through an anonymous submission process, joining stories by 10 authors originally invited to contribute to the collection.

Congratulations to David Bart, Susan Breen, Tori Eldridge, Connie Johnson Hambley, G. Miki Hayden, Bonnie Hearn Hill, Alexandra Jamison, Steve Liskow, Neil Plakcy, and Jonathan Stone, whose stories will appear alongside those by Rozan and writers she personally chose to participate: Carolyn Hart, Naomi Hirahara, Gabino Iglesias, Renee James, Walter Mosley, Sara Paretsky, Gary Phillips, Jonathan Santlofer, and Ovidia Yu. 

“What was most exciting about the stories we received for the contest — and what made it so difficult for me and the judges to choose — was the variety of different ways the writers interpreted home,” said Rozan. “For some it was a physical place, for others a community, a family... Home is what you make of it, and these writers made wonderful work.” 

Judging for the anthology was done by a distinguished panel of these writers’ peers. Alex Segura of the MWA Publications Committee worked with judges Jonathan Brown, Brendan Dubois, Cheryl Head, Michael Nava, and Laura Joh Rowland, who read and selected stories from the anonymous submissions — difficult decisions given the quality of the writing submitted by so many other MWA members.

MWA adult anthologies are published each spring with a new guest editor. Rozan, Segura, and Laurie R. King, chair of the Publications Committee, are grateful to everyone who submitted a story this year and to everyone who has helped bring the project so far — and excited to present this book to mystery fans next spring! 

From the original call for submissions: “Safe at home — that feeling when you’re in your living room, your team’s stadium, your family’s Sunday dinner. But even here, in this safest of places, sometimes CRIME HITS HOME. What happens then?” 

"What was most exciting about the stories we received for the contest ... was the variety of different ways the writers interpreted home.” -SJ Rozan 

CRIME HITS HOME STORIES:

Naomi Hirahara, “Grand Garden” 

* David Bart, “The World’s Oldest Living Detective” 

Sara Paretsky, “Little House in the Big Woods” 

* Susan Breen, “Banana Island” 

Gary Phillips, “Flip-top” 

* Neil Plakcy, “Oyster Creek” 

Renee James, “Stalking Adolf” 

* Connie Johnson Hambley, “Currents” 

Gabino Iglesias, “What They Knew” 

* Alexandra Jamison, “Haunted Home on the Range” 

Walter Mosley, “Not Exit” 

* Tori Eldridge, “Missing on Kaua’i” 

Carolyn Hart, “Calling Mr. Smith” 

* G. Miki Hayden, “Forever Unconquered” 

Jonathan Santlofer, “Private Dancer” 

* Jonathan Stone, “The Relentless Flow of the Amazon” 

Ovidia Yu, “Live Pawns” 

* Bonnie Hearn Hill, “The Happy Birthday Song” 

* Steve Liskow, “Jack in the Box” 

SJ Rozan, “Playing for Keeps” 

* indicates stories chosen from anonymous submissions

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Heart Strings

 As fiction authors, we want to burrow into your emotional spectrum and connect with as many as we can. We've done our job as you turn our pages late into the night or cradle the finished read for those precious moments when our story seeps into your bones. We want you angry. Or happy. Or terrified. It's our job to entertain. Or enlighten. Or provoke.

Non-fiction is that and more. We burrow into our own emotions or experiences and unfold a story we hope is illuminating or interesting in some way. We want to connect, but the connections we seek are different. Sharing a small corner of the human experience brings us closer together.

Under my non-fiction umbrella are various pieces of journalism. I hoped my recently published article in Financial Advisor Magazine would spark a deeper appreciation of the complicated tentacles of elder financial exploitation. It did. 

I received an email from a woman who was helpless to stop the exploitation of her mother. In part, she said, "reading your words was like reading my mind: my mom could not see herself as a victim and was still lucid. As you so succinctly expressed it, 'although cognitively intact, Mom was emotionally powerless to stop her victimization.'"

So, yeah. There's that.

It's hard for me to feel good about connecting with someone whose mother experienced "unspeakable psychological/emotional abuse." This is one human experience I don't want to share.

But, here we are.



Friday, June 18, 2021

Getting Attention: Financial Advisor Magazine

We've heard the saying, "A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step."

A writer would say, "An epic tome of love and betrayal begins with one story."

But we all know such a story has tentacles that reach well beyond the words on the page.

When the subject is elder financial exploitation, the impact is felt beyond victim and culprit. Families crumble. Relationships fray. Hearts break.

But every bit of awareness builds hope that one family's heartache will lead to another family's triumph.

I'm gratified that sharing one tiny corner of my story was important enough to be published in Financial Advisor Magazine.




I've heard from many people since this article was published. Some praised the clear-headed approach of what can be done within stringent legal guidelines. Others confided that their experience was worsened by inept, and sometimes corrupt, advisors. In all instances, it's clear that so much more must be done to combat the insidious crime of elder financial exploitation.




Tuesday, June 15, 2021

5. Fear, Shame, and Love: The Hidden Epidemic of Elder Financial Exploitation Part Five: Resources

[This is the final of a series of articles leading up to World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, June 15, 2021] 

Part Five: Resources

Today, June 15, marks World Elder Abuse Awareness Day. Started in conjunction with the United Nations and the World Health Organization, WEAAD seeks to increase understanding and awareness of the “cultural, social, economic, and demographic processes affecting elder abuse and neglect. . . [while] acknowledging the significance of elder abuse as a public health and human rights issue. WEAAD serves as a call-to-action for individuals, organizations, and communities to raise awareness about elder abuse, neglect, and exploitation.”

Abuse can be physical, emotional, sexual, or financial. Neglect and abandonment are also recognized forms of abuse. State and federal laws seek to protect elders and vulnerable adults by codifying criminality and identifying illegal acts. This series of articles has focused on the insidious and vastly underreported crime of financial exploitation and abuse against elders. The crime is equally as damaging as other abuses. Most victims are unaware that they have legal protections due to their medical vulnerabilities or simply age. Many states define “elder” as anyone over 60.

Unlike other abuses that may have visible signs of harm like bruises or poor hygiene, financial abuse has few outward signs. The predator may physically or emotionally isolate the elder from supportive friends or family, so clues may go unnoticed. Friends may be reluctant to question changes to wills or financial documents fearing overstepping into private matters. Behavior changes like anxiety, depression, and evasiveness may not trigger an inquiry into the root cause.

Contrary to popular assumptions, financial exploitation is not a problem only of the wealthy. Elders may receive Social Security benefits or enjoy savings or a pension plan that other family members do not have. Because elders may be the only family members with a steady stream of income, experts fear a hidden epidemic of financial abuse as the impact of COVID is fully realized. Victimization occurs through unpaid loans, theft, coerced or fraudulently signed documents like home deeds, wills, or Powers of Attorney. Family dynamics and embarrassment add to the reluctance of an elder to report a crime. Saving face and not wanting “to get anyone in trouble” contribute to financial exploitation is a hidden epidemic. With Baby Boomers reaching retirement age at the rate of over 10,000 per day, the impacted class of potential victims is burgeoning and becoming what experts in the field refer to as an “incoming tsunami of disaster.”

Most predators don’t see themselves or have others see them, as evil people. They are the sons, spouses, daughters, grandchild, close neighbor, landlord, or trusted professional. Bad actors come in all shapes and sizes. They feel entitled to overrule the elder’s wishes for inheritance or money flow for a variety of reasons. Many do not see replacing the elder’s decisions with their own as criminal. The elder’s wealth is “owed” to them because of perceived past sleights or current needs. Predators discount the elder’s wishes to treat siblings equally. Estate and financial plans and the powers that they provide are prime targets for abusive acts.

The most common profile of a predator is a family member in distress. They may have substance abuse issues, but most likely have financial stresses. They may view themselves as being entitled to the assets of the elders by either birthright or proximity; they are the person “on deck” handling the elder’s day-to-day needs while remaining oblivious that their actions may have directly contributed to that elder’s isolation from outside supports.

The elders themselves become the perfect victims. A parent may hide the crime out of a need to protect their child from legal consequences, or a tenant may not complain in fear of eviction from a landlord. The victim feels shame that they “allowed” a family member or close friend to take advantage of them. They don’t want anyone to get into trouble. They just want the actions to stop. The elder victim will often blur the truth to investigators–the very people who are trying to help stop the financial drain. A toxic mix of co-dependency with the abuser and embarrassment contribute to the invisibility of the crime.

How can you protect yourself or another from harm? Good estate and financial planning are essential as well as communicating your wishes to others who do not have a financial or emotional stake in the outcome. Changes to estate documents are a common ploy to alter an inheritance plan. Having a will, trust documents, healthcare proxy, living will, Powers of Attorney are your first line of defense. Sticking to the plan and withstanding pressure to change documents is the second. For many, this is easier said than done.

If you know of a vulnerable adult or someone over 60 years of age whom you suspect to be a victim of financial exploitation, there are resources to help you understand the crime as well as to help the person. Search “(State’s Name) Elder Abuse” to further the process of understanding how you can help. Many states have adult protective services agencies that will listen to your concerns on a confidential basis and conduct an investigation if warranted. Your state attorney general’s office will have a group dedicated to all forms of elder abuse.

National organizations often have referral links to your state’s agencies.

 

National Center of Elder Abuse

https://ncea.acl.gov/WEAAD.aspx

 

American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) Information on Fraud Types and Prevention

https://www.aarp.org/aarp-foundation/our-work/income/info-2015/fraud-prevention.html

 

National Institute of Health/National Institute on Aging

https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/elder-abuse

 

National Guardianship Association

https://www.guardianship.org/

 

National Institute of Justice

https://nij.ojp.gov/topics/articles/financial-exploitation-elderly

 

National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys

https://www.naela.org.

###


 Part One: The Crime 

Part Two: Predators

Part Three: The Perfect Victims

Part Four: Bad Actors

Part Five: Resources

 

Elder abuse is a crime that can be physical, medical, financial, or emotional/behavioral in nature. Neglect and abandonment of an elder can be crimes as well. If you or a loved one is the subject of suspected abuse, call your local adult protective services to speak confidentially with a knowledgeable expert.

=============


 


Monday, June 14, 2021

4. Fear, Shame, and Love: The Hidden Epidemic of Elder Financial Exploitation Part Four: Bad Actors

 [This is the fourth of a series of articles leading up to World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, June 15, 2021.]


Part Four: Bad Actors

Helen’s* predator, Jane*, took advantage of her Alzheimer’s disease. Elizabeth’s* son, Craig*, took advantage of his relationship with her and the family’s station in their community. Both women’s families ultimately looked for help from the courts.

As many families discover, even the best intentions can pave the road to Hell.

 

Best Practices for Protection

Best practices for protecting yourself and your loved ones from being financially manipulated is to have solid estate and financial plans that include wills, trusts, Powers of Attorney, healthcare proxies, and more. Using a reputable law firm willing to work with your chosen tax/financial advisor to create a comprehensive and seamless plan will mitigate confusion and unnecessary additional costs upon the final resolution of your estate. A letter written by you explaining your understanding and intent is also valuable, as is making sure a person who has no financial or personal interest in the resolution of your affairs knows your desires.

Helen had all of the right documents in place. She and her late husband had put together a comprehensive plan years before his death. They made two critical miscalculations: They failed to predict Helen’s slow cognitive decline. She was still able to execute legal and financial documents well before she was declared incompetent to do so. Also, she amended documents using a new law firm. When Jane had Helen draw up new documents using a new attorney, Helen’s decades-long relationship with her trusted family attorney was rendered moot. 

Shortly after new estate and financial documents were created, Helen’s much-loved summer lake house was sold. Her family protested the decision, but Helen was firm: “My house, my decision,” she claimed. “Besides, I need the money.” Her declaration ignited her family to investigate, leading to her diagnosis and the appointment of a guardian over her affairs.

Elizabeth, too, had all of the right plans and documents in place. Her youngest child of three, Mary*, had the education, experience, and temperament to handle Elizabeth’s complex estate. Mary became Elizabeth’s named estate executor, trustee, financial and healthcare Power of Attorney–the very powers that are catnip to predators. Mary took her responsibilities seriously and forged open and transparent relationships with her mother’s legal, financial, tax, and healthcare professionals. Neither Mary nor Elizabeth ever dreamed that Elizabeth would be the subject of a guardianship petition.

 

Guardianship as a Tool

Having a guardian help with a loved one’s affairs is a godsend for many families. Any person interested in an adult’s welfare can file a petition. State laws provide for another person or professional to assume decision-making duties when individuals are no longer capable of making health, living, personal, or financial decisions for themselves. The term “guardian” is often interchanged with “conservator” when those duties are restricted to property or financial decisions, famously shown with Brittany Spears’ conservatorship. A person may have lost the ability (known as “capacity”) to make decisions on one or any combination of each because of a disease, injury, or infirmity due to age. Once in place, the guardian replaces the ward’s (also called the “incapacitated person”) legal authority to make decisions for him- or herself.

Guardianships can be invaluable tools for families struggling with a loved one who cannot care for themselves. Courts look to granting the least restrictive powers by assessing the totality of the alleged incapacitated person’s legal, medical, family support, and financial situation. They may appoint a guardian over all or part of the ward’s affairs, supplanting the ward’s past and future decision-making with those of the guardian. Courts provide oversight to ensure that the scope of care meets the ward’s needs without exceeding set limits. Guardianship fees are paid out of the ward’s assets.

The Netflix movie, I Care A Lot sensationalized the total guardianship of an elder.

Like any tool, guardianships can cause irreparable harm if wielded by a bad actor.

 

Good Tools and Bad Actors

Oversight and transparency are key drivers to having a good guardianship experience. If that process fails, guardianship can become part of the problem. Once Helen was determined no longer to have the legal capacity to make her own decisions, the court-appointed a professional guardian to manage all of her affairs. The guardian had total control over Helen, including where she lived and all of her financial and legal matters.  

Sadly, for Helen’s family, the professionals and the lawyers charged with overseeing her guardianship were bad actors. Although the lake house could not be “unsold,” the family sought to unravel investment, will, and trust changes that benefitted Jane. In a twist made for the movies, Jane’s newly deepened pockets paid for the roadblocks that stopped the family from reclaiming much of what was lost. Only after the family sued the guardian and the lawyers involved were they able to find and reclaim a fraction of Helen’s wealth.

Craig was enraged that Mary questioned his unpaid six-figure loans from Elizabeth and property transfers. Elizabeth cowered from his rages and defaulted to giving Craig anything he wanted just to stop his tirades. Mary stopped Elizabeth from doing more, citing long-standing estate and financial plans made decades before and reviewed regularly.

Craig filed a guardianship petition against Elizabeth, claiming that she was incapable of caring for herself. He wanted full control over all of her decisions. He also claimed that Mary used her designated powers to block Elizabeth from her assets. He claimed that Mary violated her fiduciary duties and should be replaced. By him.

Fortunately, for Elizabeth, the attorneys and court involved in managing her petition were Good Guys. The court appointed an impartial evaluator to interview all persons and to gather as much evidence as possible to either support or refute Craig’s claim that Elizabeth was incompetent. The evaluator scrutinized Mary’s actions, assessing if either Craig or a professional should replace her.

The court dismissed the petition, declaring Elizabeth of sound mind. They determined she had all of the appropriate documents, support, and people in place to manage her affairs effectively.

The Bad Actor in Elizabeth’s case was her son. He tried to wield a good tool, like guardianship, in order to gain access to legal and financial power over an elder. Like most victims, Elizabeth just wanted the abusive acts to stop and didn’t want her son to get into legal trouble. She ignored her counsel’s advice to prosecute and insisted, “He filed because he loves me.”

Elder financial exploitation is a mire of subtle harms where privacy is a predator’s shield and where patterns may speak more loudly than the victims themselves.

###

 Part One: The Crime 

Part Two: Predators

Part Three: The Perfect Victims

Part Four: Bad Actors

Part Five: Resources

*All names have been changed upon the request of the families.

Elder abuse is a crime that can be physical, medical, financial, or emotional/behavioral in nature. Neglect and abandonment of an elder can be crimes as well. If you or a loved one is the subject of suspected abuse, call your local adult protective services to speak confidentially with a knowledgeable expert.

 


 

3. Fear, Shame, and Love: The Hidden Epidemic of Elder Financial Exploitation Part Three: The Perfect Victims

 [This is the third of a series of articles leading up to World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, June 15, 2021.]

Part Three: The Perfect Victims


Helen* and Elizabeth* were victims of the same crime. Helen because she had Alzheimer’s. Elizabeth because she loved too much. The insidious nature of elder financial exploitation fosters the creation of the perfect victim.

 

It’s Not Just the Wealthy Who Are Targets

One doesn’t need to be wealthy to be targeted. Seniors are often the one family member with a steady income from Social Security, savings, or a retirement plan. With 10,000 Baby Boomers reaching retirement age each day, and with less than an estimated 10 percent of financial exploitation cases being reported, many experts caution about a hidden epidemic of abuse that is reaching a tipping point as the financial impact of COVID comes into full view.

The crime of financial exploitation is the conversion of money, services, or property from an elder through coercion, deception, undue influence, or misrepresentation. For some, there may be co-concurrent physical abuse as evidenced by unexplained bruises or sores. Even missing aids like eyeglasses, walkers, or hearing aids may signal attempts at isolating or intimidating the victim to coerce a financial benefit. Yet, exploitation cases of the medically frail or of those living in an institutional setting were less prevalent than of elders who lived alone. Independent elders comprise over 66 percent of the reported cases.

Exploitation can happen where no relationship exists between the victim and the criminal such as with consumer fraud found in mail, phone, or Internet scams. However, the vast majority of exploitation occurs inside a relationship where there is an expectation of trust, such as with spouses, children, grandchildren, neighbors, and professionals. Visible signs may include stolen credit cards, missing checks, forged signatures, fraudulent or unauthorized transfers, and identity theft.

 

Weaponized Relationships

Invisible signs include behavior changes. Guarded or paranoid behavior, secrecy, lies, and letting things go that once caused concern are red flags that something is amiss. Depression, anxiety, withdrawal, apathy, or anger–common symptoms of abuse–may have a variety of causes, and few would expect a criminal act as a trigger. Abrupt changes in estate documents or financial security often go unnoticed even by the closest friends. The crime’s invisibility adds to its misunderstanding, including blaming the victim for their problems.

“Weaponized” relationships contribute to this crime being one of the most underreported as misdeeds look and feel like a “private matter.” Even a victim entangled in the web of an abusive relationship often cannot tell the difference between an act of freedom or an act of coercion. They just want the abuse to stop.

Both Helen and Elizabeth had something that Jane* and Craig* desperately wanted, needed, and felt entitled to. For Jane, it was money. For Craig, it was money, property, and something as hard to define as a family legacy.

In Helen’s case, it was her best friend who defrauded her of millions. In Elizabeth’s case, it was her son who bullied her into silence when loans went unpaid or questionable property transactions occurred. They became the perfect victims.

Eccentricity is a privilege of the old and making a questionable payment is not in and of itself evidence of exploitation, but intent and reasoning matter. The prosecution of the crime often hinges on the victim’s testimony. For the criminal, a perfect victim is someone who cannot or will not admit a crime has been committed. This can stem from a spectrum of reasons from fear of reprisal from the criminal, to embarrassment and shame.

 

Denial and Silence

Both Helen and Elizabeth denied they were victims. Neither woman would bear witness against the criminal despite an overwhelming amount of evidence. Both were easily intimidated into silence in large part because of the station that the criminals had in their lives. Feeling helpless and dependent upon the criminal, fear chilled any motivation to push back against actions they and others knew were wrong.

Silence enables and emboldens the predator, making the victim an unwitting accomplice to their own victimization. Helen and Elizabeth’s lives were inextricably woven into the lives of their abusers. Any action they took would have a ripple effect. The complicated web of co-dependency tightened, making this crime similar to domestic abuse.

 

Co-Dependent Victims

Before she was determined to be incompetent to sign documents, Helen trusted that Jane was helping organize her affairs. Jane provided the companionship Helen wanted. Investments and homes disappeared. When questioned, Helen lied to protect Jane, fearing she’d be left alone.

Helen’s family began the uncomfortable task of unveiling a once-trusted friend as a thief. They were shocked and saddened by Helen’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis, but were dumbfounded by what followed. They could not unravel the transactions that Jane illegally benefitted from. Jane fought back. Legal complexities spiraled. Helen was placed under guardianship. What had been hoped to be the end of Helen’s troubles, incredibly opened another chapter.

Elizabeth found herself in an abusive, co-dependent relationship with her son in part because of her need to be needed. Her youngest daughter, Mary*, worried about large checks and property transfers to Craig. Elizabeth insisted the multiple payments were “just this once” to “help Craig out of a tough spot.” When Mary observed that the payments and transfers were not what Elizabeth’s late husband and she had agreed to as part of their estate and financial plans, Craig became enraged at Mary’s “meddling” and Elizabeth tried to hide transactions to foster family peace.  

Families, friends, and most professionals don't like to see a crime. Instead, they see siblings who don't get along, or parents who had "favorites."

 

Patterns Speak More Loudly than Victims

Blocked from unfettered access to Elizabeth’s money by Mary’s advocacy, Craig upped his game and instead focused his attention on ensuring that he would profit as much as possible when Elizabeth eventually passed away. He targeted Elizabeth’s wills and trusts that Mary had been appointed to.  

For vastly different reasons than in Helen’s case, Craig filed to gain full guardianship over Elizabeth.

Patterns of transactions often speak more loudly than the victims themselves. In both Helen and Elizabeth’s cases, a multi-year pattern of financial transactions emerged. Their loved ones summoned help, feeling as if they were betraying family codes of loyalty.

The patterns of elder financial exploitation and abuse transcended the boundaries of an ailing or sound mind. The women’s legal, tax, and financial advisors clearly identified a predatory constellation of acts. Doubts of criminality vanished.

Like an abused spouse, Helen and Elizabeth claimed their financial black eyes were caused by their own trip down the stairs. They didn’t want their predators to “get into trouble.”

Jane and Craig had found the perfect victims.

###

 Part One: The Crime 

Part Two: Predators

Part Three: The Perfect Victims

Part Four: Bad Actors

Part Five: Resources

 

*All names have been changed upon the request of the families.

Elder abuse is a crime that can be physical, medical, financial, or emotional/behavioral in nature. Neglect and abandonment of an elder can be crimes as well. If you or a loved one is the subject of suspected abuse, call your local adult protective services to speak confidentially with a knowledgeable expert.

 


 

Sunday, June 13, 2021

2. Fear, Shame, and Love: The Hidden Epidemic of Elder Financial Exploitation Part Two: Predators

 [This is the second of a series of articles leading up to World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, June 15, 2021]


Part Two: Predators


Helen’s* family was stunned by her Alzheimer’s diagnosis. They were equally stunned when that diagnosis didn’t protect her or her family from the ravages of elder financial exploitation.

A family vacation home was sold and the proceeds disappeared. Banking and investment accounts vanished or the balances diminished in an unexplained plummet. Like many elder victims, Helen became increasingly defensive, evasive, and confused. But it’s not only the ailing who can be exploited. The insidious truth is that healthy elders (defined as anyone over 60 years of age) can become victims, too.

 

Clever Scams

Financial scams are limited only by the predator’s imagination and no prior relationship between the victim and predator is needed. Scams can come in the form of phone calls by persons alleging to be a family member (most often a grandchild) in some kind of urgent trouble or a customer service representative offering a ‘refund’ that cleverly morphs into the victim sending money (frequently in the form of gift cards) to cover an ‘error.’ The Internet can be a minefield of scams only a click away. Mail-based fraud may take the form of charity or political solicitations. Unscrupulous home maintenance professionals may also take advantage of elders, where sneaky perpetrators pad invoices or submit false bills altogether. The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) has a trove of articles to help identify and protect yourself or loved ones from phone-, Internet-, and mail-based scams at aarp.org.

We can begin to protect our elders from nameless or faceless predators with advice like, “Don’t give out personal or financial information over the phone or unfamiliar websites,” or, “Don’t respond to direct mail solicitations.” Calling your local resource center or council on aging for referrals to trusted professionals or home repair businesses is also a line of protection. Yet, elder financial exploitation is one of the most under-reported crimes. Why? Because it’s a crime of access and opportunity most often enacted by a family member or a close family friend.

 

The Trusted Predator

So, who are the people who exploit others?

They are the sons, daughters, spouses, friends, grandchildren, landlords, or professionals who have sat with you on a sunny afternoon. They have access to the elder, most often by living with them or in close proximity to them. Unlike the fraud schemes mentioned above, they have a close relationship with the elder, and it’s that relationship that becomes weaponized.

Helen’s case was a perfect storm of bad actors. What began as self-serving acts of one individual tragically became a case of predatory guardianship. As fictionalized in the Netflix movie, I Care A Lot, professionals charged with protecting vulnerable adults are well-positioned to exploit their charges. Most conservators or guardians have sufficient state-mandated oversight to eliminate abuses, but even well-intentioned tools can add to problems. (More about guardianships in a later column.)

Widowed years before, Helen lived away from family in a retirement community. Isolation from supportive family and friends is a key contributor to abuse. For Helen’s family, what had seemed like an ideal situation of independent living added to her vulnerability. Removed from the questioning eyes of family, Jane* began to exert influence. Small transgressions went unaddressed. Jane became emboldened and began to “wean” Helen from her other relationships, further embedding herself into Helen’s affairs. Jane became an indispensable friend, displaying hurt if not included in Helen’s plans. Soon, the family realized Helen had little privacy from Jane, and Helen became evasive when questioned about her friend.

Isolation can be physical, but it can be psychological as well.

Elizabeth’s* youngest daughter, Mary*, didn’t understand the increasingly large checks written to her brother, Craig*. When questioned, Elizabeth withdrew, mentioning how angry Craig had become at Mary’s inquiries. Elizabeth struggled to “keep the peace,” and began to avoid Mary in fear of making Craig mad.

Jane and Craig used their access to begin separating the vulnerable elder from people or institutions instrumental in the healthy support of that elder. Once isolated, the opportunities for their actions to go unquestioned increased. Perpetrators of financial exploitation are most often a close family member like a husband or grandchild. They leverage the loss or worsening of their relationship as a weapon–“do this or else”–or as a gaslighting wedge, “Don’t you remember? You owed me money for gas and groceries.” Or worse. “Oh, these documents? Trust me, it’s nothing. Sign here.” What the victim’s family sadly finds out too late, is that one signature can make a lifetime of savings disappear.

 

A ‘Justifiable’ Crime

People who exploit others often do not see their actions as wrong. Jane began her theft feeling Helen had “enough” money and, with her failing health, would “never miss it.” Craig felt entitled to Elizabeth’s money through a misguided combination of “oldest son” and a sense of entitlement. Observed from the outside, exploitative relationships don’t have the typical red flags one would expect in an abusive relationship. Perpetrators of elder financial abuse and exploitation enjoy the cloak of “private family affair” that makes questioning details by a concerned person uncomfortable. An addicted child or cash-poor son may be sheltered by a parent reluctant to disclose painful family secrets.

Helen was surely vulnerable and the family was justifiably upset at the changes of her financial health, and, as a result, their inheritances. Yet, Jane felt justified and protected. Mary felt anger toward her mother and brother for continuing a pattern all knew was wrong.

Once diagnosed, Helen’s family reached out to others for help, only to uncover a shocking underbelly of corruption. Mary found stopping her mother’s financial drain had a surprising twist.

How and why?

The next articles will provide some answers.

###

 Part One: The Crime 

Part Two: Predators

Part Three: The Perfect Victims

Part Four: Bad Actors

Part Five: Resources

 

*All names have been changed upon the request of the families.

Elder abuse is a crime that can be physical, medical, financial, or emotional/behavioral in nature. Neglect and abandonment of an elder can be crimes as well. If you or a loved one is the subject of suspected abuse, call your local adult protective services to speak confidentially with a knowledgeable expert.