[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.
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.
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.
*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.