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Strangers, friends, even family members victimize the elderly

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By Jill King Greenwood
Monday, June 13, 2011

Kathryn Zakskorn's grandmother saw her life savings slowly depleted by a relative who took advantage of the elderly woman's worsening dementia.

Zakskorn of Sacramento said the financial abuse her grandmother suffered totaled tens of thousands of dollars, tore her family apart and left them feeling helpless.

"It was awful," said Zakskorn, who works for Home Care Assistance, which provides in-home health care services for seniors. "My grandmother didn't know what was going on, and she was taken advantage of."

Every year, thousands of older people lose more than $3 billion in financial scams and lottery hoaxes, often at the hands of relatives they trusted, said Ramsey Laine Alwin, director of the Economic Security Initiative at the National Council on Aging.

"There is no end to the scams, schemes and swindles to target the elderly and their limited means," Alwin said. "It can happen very quickly or over time, but by the time it's discovered, the victim has usually lost everything."

The toll of scams is rising, with victims losing $2.6 billion in 2008 and more than $3 billion last year, Alwin said. Other than relatives and trusted friends, many elderly victims fall prey to e-mail scams telling them they've won a lottery in a foreign country and need to wire money upfront to an offshore account to cover the taxes.

Then there's the "grandparent scam," Alwin said.

It involves someone calling an older man or woman and claiming to be their granddaughter or grandson, then saying they are in jail and need bail money wired immediately.

"That scam is happening all over the country, and it's on the rise," Alwin said.

A scheme that surfaced in Milwaukee involves scammers who offer to file the federal tax forms of an elderly person for a fee, then steal their refund and use their personal information to commit identity theft, Alwin said.

In Pennsylvania, the state Attorney General's Office receives about 6,500 complaints a year related to all types of abuse of the elderly, agency spokesman Nils Frederiksen said. Of those, about 400 specifically involve financial abuse.

The number of financial scam complaints peaked in 2007-08 when the economy was suffering the most, Frederiksen said, and have remained steady since. Many times, the scammers sell or trade the information of those they defraud to other scammers, he added.

Carol Catanzaro, financial exploitation investigator for the Allegheny County Area Agency on Aging, said most cases she handles involve a person being swindled by a friend or relative.

"Some of those who abuse the elderly are very patient, and they'll befriend a senior citizen over a period of time," Catanzaro said. "They'll start by offering to cut the person's grass or shovel their snow and as soon as they earn their trust, they offer to take them to the bank or handle their bills and then start taking money."

Catanzaro said many elderly victims don't even realize they've been scammed until their utilities get disconnected or they receive notices about unpaid bills.

Frederiksen said elderly victims many times don't report the abuse or tell relatives about it because they're ashamed.

"There's a fair amount of embarrassment, and often they are scared that their relatives will take over their affairs or tell them they aren't allowed to handle their own money anymore," Frederiksen said. "It's like having to surrender their driver's license; they don't want to lose their freedom."

Alwin said relatives need to hold frequent discussions with elderly family members about the realities of Internet and lottery scams and warn them not to be too trusting of those who offer to help them with finances.

"They need to know that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is," Alwin said.

Additional Information:

Sources of help

The Allegheny County Area Agency on Aging will conduct a public hearing at 10 a.m. Tuesday in the Gold Room on the fourth floor of the county courthouse to discuss its 2011-12 budget and allow the elderly and their caregivers to ask questions and get advice about financial crimes.


Web sites offering advice and tips:

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