Experts discuss growing financial exploitation of elderly

By Sean Barron


If you receive an emotional call from someone claiming to be your grandchild who was arrested and jailed in a foreign country and needs several thousand dollars to post bond, what are the first two things you should do?

Refrain from sending any money and realize it’s likely a scam, a consumer-protection expert warns.

“They pretend to be a police officer, a judge, a bail bondsman and your granddaughter,” Ryan Lippe said about those who take part in the so-called grandparent scam, where con artists posing as family members, law-enforcement personnel and others provide phony stories to get victims to send or wire money to them.

Lippe, who’s with the Ohio Attorney General’s office’s consumer-protection section, was among panelists at the Austintown Senior Center who discussed the growing problem of financial exploitation against the elderly during Friday’s Mahoning Valley Anti-Fraud and Anti–Exploitation Senior Forum.

The program, in partnership with the center and the Area Agency on Aging 11, offered experts from Adult Protective Services as well as those in law enforcement, banking, consumer protection and elder law who addressed many types of scams aimed largely at older adults.

U.S. seniors lose about $36.5 billion annually to financial exploitation, an estimated $17 billion of which is the result of deceptive but sometimes legal tactics targeting older people, according to the True Link Financial Report on Elder Abuse 2015.

Also common is a scam in which callers claiming to represent the Internal Revenue Service tell people they are delinquent on their income taxes and will be arrested if they fail to pay a certain amount. Victims often are instructed to buy money or gift cards at big-box stores such as Walmart, then wire the funds, Lippe explained.

“It’s like giving them cash and running in the other direction,” he said, noting that the IRS always sends letters to people who owe money.

“If you forget to pay your tax bill by April 15, you’re not going to go to jail. You’ll face a penalty,” said Judge Robert Rusu of Mahoning County Probate Court, adding he has an investigator to connect someone who was exploited with needed resources, and that the court will intervene on the person’s behalf if necessary.

Many who prey on older, vulnerable people are those they trust, said Maj. William Cappabiancca of the Mahoning County Sheriff’s Department, who noted that the department has a senior-services unit. The program, established in 2007, investigates potential neglect, abuse and exploitation, conducts assessments of seniors who have been victims and refers them to appropriate agencies, Cappabiancca explained.

It’s also imperative that older people are careful online and avoid traps such as the so-called sweetheart scam, noted John Saulitis, director of the regional long-term-care ombudsman program, which advocates for and investigates complaints and concerns of people in nursing homes and assisted-living centers.

Saulitis told the story of a man who moved to Trumbull County from Georgia because he had fallen in love with a woman he corresponded with online but never met in person. Over several years, she continually asked him for money, which led to his home being foreclosed, Saulitis said.

Theodore Schmidt, president of PNC Bank, said his employees are trained to spot “red flags” that point to a likelihood of financial exploitation, such as frequent large withdrawals, especially from an automated teller machine, large wire transfers, changes in the person’s normal behavior and a caregiver or other individual speaking on behalf of the older person.

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