Financial Exploitation of Elderly Must Be Addressed

Published in Pawtucket Times, February 7, 2015

 Professor Philip Marshall, Coordinator of the Historic Preservation Program at Roger Williams University in Bristol, entered Room 562 in the Dirkson Senate Building not to testify on historic preservation policy, as he often did, but to share a family tragedy.  Marshall’s testimony detailed how his grandmother, New York philanthropist Brooke Astor, was financially exploited in her later years by his father.

Brooke Astor, a philanthropist, socialite and writer, was presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton in 1998, for her generous giving of millions of dollars to social and cultural cause.  Marshall, one of four witnesses who came before the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging this past Wednesday, would say, that his 105 year old grandmother, who died on August 13, 2007, was considered to be “New York’s First Lady,” and a “humanist aristocrat with a generous heart.”

Marshall, a resident of South Dartmouth, Massachusetts, told the panel his mother would never have wanted to be known as “one of America’s most famous cases of elder abuse.”

“Nor did she, while in the throes of dementia, choose to be victimized to be deprived, manipulated and robbed – all as a calculated ‘scheme to defraud,’ as later characterized by the Manhattan District Attorney,” said Dr. Marshall.

Astor’s financial exploitation “may be her greatest, most lasting legacy,” says  Marshall.

In his testimony, Marshall told the attending Senators that after a three-month battle for guardianship to protect his grandmother’s assets, a settlement was reached five days before the court date.  A criminal investigation launched by the Manhattan District Attorney after a potential forgery was referred to his Elder Abuse Unit, would later lead to the indictment in 2007 of his father and a lawyer, says Marshall.

Two years later, after a six-month criminal trial the jury would find Marshall’s father guilty on 13 of 14 counts against him.  All, but one, were held up on appeal.

“While my grandmother’s stolen assets were reclaimed, many elders never reclaim their money – or their lives,” observes Marshall.  “Here, for financial transactions, enhanced detection, mandatory reporting, and greater reporting of suspicious activity will help,” he says.

A Growing Epidemic

 In her opening statement, Senator Susan M. Collins, (R-Maine) who chaired, the Senate Aging Panel’s hearing, “Broken Trust: Combating Financial Exploitation Targeting Vulnerable Seniors,” warns that a growing epidemic of financial exploitation is happening – one that she estimates to cost seniors an estimated $2.9 billion in 2010, according to the Government Accounting Office.

Financial exploitation is a growing problem in Rhode Island, too, notes Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), a member of the Senate Aging Panel. “Sadly, this number likely underestimates the cost to victims because older adults often do not report abuse, particularly when it involves a family member.”

Senator Whitehouse noted that this week’s Special Committee on Aging hearing examined the challenges to identifying and prosecuting fraud schemes and highlighted strategies to prevent the financial exploitation of seniors. “There are steps we can take to address this problem, and I strongly support the Older Americans Act, which recently advanced out of the HELP Committee and addresses financial exploitation and other forms of elder abuse,” he added.

“Over the past several years the Rhode Island State Police has experienced a steady increase in the number of complaints of elderly exploitation and larceny from individuals over sixty-five-years, says Colonel Steven O’Donnell, who oversees the Rhode Island State Police.  During the past six years his Agency has investigated 40 complaints amounting to a total loss to victims of over $1,000,000.00.

According to O’Donnell, in 2010, State Police investigated four complaints related to elderly exploitation and/or larceny.  Four years later, 14 complaints were investigated. “These increases may be attributed to the increased computer literacy of willing perpetrators and the increased accessibility to bank accounts online, which provides perpetrators the opportunity to conduct their criminal activity behind closed doors,” he says.

Combating Financial Exploitation

To ratchet up the protection of older Rhode Islanders against financial exploitation, Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Kilmartin and the Rhode Island General Assembly passed a bill last year that extends the statute of limitations for elder exploitation from three years to ten years. Kilmartin says the new law, sponsored by retired Representative Elaine A. Coderre (D-District 60, Pawtucket) and Senator Paul V. Jabour (D- District 5, Providence), gives law enforcement officials the necessary time to build a proper case for charging and subsequent prosecution, bringing it in line with other financial crimes.

“The law about financial exploitation is on the books—let’s enforce it,” says, Kathleen Heren, State Long Term Care Ombudsman, at the Warwick-based Alliance for Better Long Term Care. “What a sad world we are in where a senior or a disabled person loses everything they have scrimped and saved for to a greedy individual who, in the majority of cases, is a family member,” she adds.  Over the years she has also seen financial exploitation involving clergy, lawyers, bank tellers, brokers, and “people who you would never suspect would steal from a frail elder.”

“Many people who hear “elder abuse and neglect” [or financial exploitation] think about older people living in nursing homes or about elderly relatives who live all alone and never have visitors. But elder abuse and financial exploitation are not just problems of older people we never see. It is right in our midst, and as Attorney General, I am committed to doing all I can to protect all of the citizens of our state,” says Kilmartin.

“Many elders rely on others for assistance, but oftentimes think they can easily trust these helpers to handle their financial affairs, only to be robbed of their hard earned money,” says Kilmartin, noting that in some cases the perpetrator leaves the victim penniless.

Kilmartin notes that financial exploitation of elders is one of the most challenging crimes to investigate, charge and prosecute.  By the time law enforcement becomes aware of the abuse and investigates the matter, the statute of limitations has often expired.  “The statute of limitations needs to be more reasonable so these complicated cases can be prosecuted appropriately,” states Rhode Island’s Attorney General. “Seniors, especially those who must rely on others for care, were unnecessarily made more vulnerable by the previous short statute of limitations,” he says.

According to Kilmartin, The Office of Attorney General has a specialized unit of prosecutors and investigators that handle elder abuse cases.  Several years ago, the Elder Abuse Unit was created because of the large percentage of Rhode Islanders who were age 60 and over. The special needs of the older victims and the fact that elder abuse, neglect and exploitation crosses all racial, socio-economic, gender and geographic lines made the need for a special unit apparent.  Coupled with this fact that this age group is the State’s fastest growing demographic, crimes against older persons often times go unreported, presenting high temptation and low risk for prosecution.

In Rhode Island, there is a mandatory duty of all citizens to report a suspicion of elder abuse and/or elder financial exploitation. To report elder physical abuse and/or elder financial abuse, contact your local police, Rhode Island State Police or the Rhode Island Division of Elderly Affairs at (401) 462-3000 or dea.ri.gov.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12 is a Pawtucket writer covering aging, health care and medical issues.  He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com or at 401 742-4372.

 

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Credit Breaches Are Hazardous to Your Financial Health

Published in Pawtucket Times, October 17, 2014

It seems to happen all the time. Just recently Target Corporation, Home Depot, Dairy Queen and Neiman Marcus – followed by Michaels, and more recently JPMorgan Chase and Kmart – found their data systems being breached. I thought that I had dodged the bullet from being a victim until last month when I received a letter from my local savings and loan warning me about a potential security breach affecting my credit card.

Data breaches and hacking annually affect millions of Americans, costing billions of dollars and countless hours for consumers to correct problems resulting from identity theft and fraud that results in their checks bouncing and being accessed late fees.
Data Breaches Not a Rare Occurrence

What exactly is a data breach? Simply put, a data breach occurs when a company’s database, typically containing customer information, is hacked by sophisticated malware programs that can infiltrate a company’s network, sometimes for months before being noticed.

“Not that long ago, we were taught to always know where your wallet or purse was to ensure we didn’t fall victim to a pickpocket. Yesterday’s common street thief is today’s computer hacker, and it is often months before you realized they’ve virtually picked your pocket,” said Attorney General Peter Kilmartin.

According to the Rhode Island Attorney General, his staff has been busy in the past year informing consumers about the data breaches at some of best-known retail and financial companies. He says last year, there were multiple reports of massive data breaches at the nation’s largest corporations. According to a recent survey, 43 percent of companies have suffered one data breach this past year, and 60 percent say they’ve been struck by multiple data breaches in the last two years.
“In today’s technology–driven and paperless retail marketplace, it is inevitable that some, if not all, of your personal and financial information – credit card and banking information, email, and social security number – will be compromised,” warns Kilmartin.

Congressman James Langevin has been a leader on the issue of cyber security, and is leading efforts inside the Washington Beltway. “Stories of public data breaches are becoming increasingly common, and if a Fortune 500 company is susceptible to these types of breaches, we can be sure that similar attacks are possible among other retailers and businesses,” said Congressman Jim Langevin, the co-founder and co-chair of the Congressional Cybersecurity Caucus. “I have been sounding the alarm on cybersecurity for years, and I fear the consequences if we delay any further the steps needed to strengthen our technology infrastructure,” said Langevin.

The Democratic lawmaker, serving the second congressional district since 1991, says, “I am particularly concerned about the potential for cyber attack against critical infrastructure, including our power grid, wastewater management and banking and health care systems, just to name a few. All of these essential services are tied into technology, and it is going to take both a strong commitment from government and a continued partnership between public and private industry in order to get us where we need to be on cyber security. Securing these networks must be a priority, and I believe it is a crucial component of our national and economic security strategies.”

Kilmartin says make no doubt about it, data breaches are a crime, but law enforcement has significant hurdles to overcome when investigating cyber crimes. “Companies that have been targets of recent data breaches are working with federal law enforcement authorities to investigate how the breach happened and who is responsible,” he notes, stressing that early evidence shows that most of the sophisticated criminal enterprises that commit cyber crimes operate outside of the United States, often in Eastern Europe. “The hackers are out of the reach of traditional law enforcement and US Courts, but that has not stopped local, state and federal authorities from investigating,” he says.

Consumers Must Become Their Own Watchdog

“Consumers in today’s world need to continually monitor their electronic purchases, their personal medical information, as well as their banking records. Consumers can follow all the rules to protect their information, and if a business or other entity entrusted with this information is vulnerable, consumers, through no fault of their own, can still be impacted. Many times, a consumer’s first contact with law enforcement may be dealing with the aftermath of a data breach or identity theft. Please know that we are there to help you and will thoroughly investigate to resolve these crimes,” stated Colonel Steven G. O’Donnell, Superintendent of the Rhode Island State Police.

Kilmartin also confirmed that he and attorneys general in several states are looking into these data breaches and hope to get answers from the companies targeted as to how and why they took place. “There are multi-state investigations by attorneys general into how these companies left consumer information vulnerable to an attack,” he said, noting, “as consumer advocates, we are determined to get to the bottom of these data breaches and to work with the companies to better protect the consumer.”

Kilmartin believes it is up to consumers to be their own watchdog: “While companies and law enforcement officials are trying to put an end to this trend, the only way someone can protect themselves is to be vigilant in monitoring their personal and financial information. And by that, I mean check your banking and credit card statements regularly and limit how much information you share with companies.”

Keeping Credit Card Thieves At Bay

Kilmartin says, “I always tell consumers that the best way to protect yourself from scams is education. Being wary of potential scams, and being a savvy consumer is the best way to stop a scam artist in their tracks.” He offers the following common sense tips to protect your credit:

Check your credit card and debit card statements regularly, and on a line-by-line basis. One may think to only look for large unauthorized charges, but thieves may place a small charge – only a few dollars – to check if the card is active. If that charge goes unnoticed, thieves will then make a large unauthorized purchase. Report all suspicious charges, no matter how small. And, check your statements every day if possible. “It may be too late to recoup some or all of your money if you don’t report it immediately,” said Kilmartin.

If you notice an unauthorized charge, report it to your financial institution immediately, cancel the card and have the bank issue you a new one.

Kilmartin recommends consumers take advantage of free credit monitoring many affected companies are offering. “Companies who have been impacted by a data breach don’t want to lose customer loyalty. Many offer up to one free year of credit monitoring for any consumer who shopped there during the breach,” he adds.

Consider adding a fraud alert to your credit report file to protect your credit information. A fraud alert can make it more difficult for someone to get credit in your name because it tells creditors to follow certain procedures, which may include contacting you directly, before authorizing the credit card, says Kilmartin, noting that while this may delay your ability to obtain credit immediately, it will protect you from someone fraudulently opening a credit card in your name.

Kilmartin urges Rhode Islanders to be suspicious of emails, phone calls, or text messages claiming to be from your bank or a retailer you shopped at. Hackers may not have gained access to all the information they need, and will often use the information they do have, like name, date of birth or credit card number to convince you to part with even more sensitive information, such as passwords or social security numbers. When in doubt, call your financial institution directly with questions. The phone number is usually on the back of credit cards and debit cards.

Update your computer’s anti-virus software. Just as hackers have wormed their way into secure databases at large-scale companies, they can worm their way into your computer.

Change your passwords. The most basic way to stop an intruder is to lock the door. Set strong passwords and don’t reuse them for different accounts, especially for accounts that involve your banking or credit card information.

Go “old school” and pay with cash or check. While we have become accustomed to using credit and debit cards to make everyday purchases, every company still takes U.S. currency.

Under federal law, you are entitled to one free copy of your credit report every 12 months from each of the three nationwide credit reporting agencies. You may obtain a free copy of your credit report by going to http://www.annualcreditreport.com or by calling (877) 322-8228.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket writer who covers aging, health care, and medical issues. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.