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Teamwork is the key to fighting financial exploitation

Cindy Chumley and Bruce Friar

Cindy Chumley of Adult Protective Services and Bruce Friar of the Austin Police Department have teamed up to investigate financial exploitation cases against the elderly for the last 3 years.

As the population of elderly Texans grows every year--from 1.9 million in 1998 to almost 2.4 million in 2008--so does the number of those swindled out of their life savings. Often it's by the people they trust the most.

These financial exploitation crimes are usually not committed by Wall Street renegades or internet scam artists. Relatives, caregivers, housekeepers, and a range of handymen and helpers are most often the culprits. Take these stories from across Texas:

  • A 65-year-old retired professor in San Antonio fell and broke her arm and shoulder. While being treated in a hospital, she suffered a stroke. A nurse suddenly "befriended" her, lost her job at the hospital, and stole about $200,000, which she used for a trip to New York, covering fines for past hot checks, and buying jewelry over a cable TV network.
  • An elderly man with dementia in Austin was paying for his own nursing home care, but was taken out of the nursing home so a granddaughter could care for him at her home. Suddenly, he had an ATM card for his bank account and online banking activity--and he didn't even own a computer. Soon he was out about $50,000 set aside for his long-term care.
  • A 90 year old Beeville man was swindled out of $240,000 by his son. The man had been paying for a nursing home out of his life savings, but after the son took all the money, the man was facing eviction from the home. Fortunately, he then qualified for Medicaid and could stay in care. Now tax payers are footing the bill.

Elder financial abuse costs older Americans more than $2.6 billion a year, according to "Broken Trust: Elders, Family, and Finances" a March 2009 study by the MetLife Mature Market Institute. But that is only a rough estimate. Many elderly are too embarrassed, unwilling, or afraid to report the crimes.

According to the National Center on Elder Abuse, only one in 14 cases of elder abuse is reported. When you consider financial exploitation, the statistics are ever worse--only 1 in 25 cases is ever reported, suggesting that there may be at least 5 million financial abuse victims each year.

"A lot of older people have pride and they don't want to admit they've been taken advantage of," said Bruce Friar, a detective with the Austin Police Department's financial crimes unit. "It's an embarrassing a situation for them--that has a lot to do with them not wanting to report it. And a lot of the cases we have worked have involved family members, which makes them reluctant to report sometimes."

When his cases involve financial crimes against the elderly, Friar works with Cindy Chumley, an investigator with Adult Protective Services (APS) at the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS). "The elderly really don't want to report on family members because then they're afraid that they're not going to have anybody," she said. "They're afraid that the other family members are going to get mad at them."

Friar and Chumley represent a growing trend in fighting elderly financial exploitation -  the teaming up of law enforcement and adult protection agencies.

For the last three years, Friar and Chumley have been working cases in the Austin area. "The first case was Miss Z, a 63 year old client," she said.  "A caregiver convinced Miss Z to leave an assisted living center and move into an apartment with her. The caregiver brought in different people to help her out, but in fact it was just a ruse so the caregiver's two kids had a place to stay. She convinced Miss Z to sign a power of attorney, which was invalid because it wasn't  signed in the correct place.  Then she got an ATM card."

Friar remembers the case like it was just yesterday. "The caregiver got two cars, and got a Home Depot card and ran it all the way up," he said. "They were fixing up their house in Del Valle, opened a Kohl's account, paid off one of the cars using Miss Z's Discover Card. But then one day, Miss Z's bank was onto something. One of the caregiver's kids came into the bank and tried to cash a check. So the bank called 9-1-1."

Coincidentally, Chumley had already begun an APS case on Miss Z and when the 9-1-1 call came in, she was sitting right beside her. "Miss Z who told me she hadn't given permission for that check," she said. "Then I got on the phone and ended up speaking with Brian."

In total, Miss Z was out $50,000, but the caregiver and her children were brought up on charges. The police filed auto theft on the two vehicles, then charges of forgery, credit card abuse, and fraudulent use of identifying information. "There were five felony warrants on that lady," said Friar.

Austin isn't the only Texas city where law enforcement and APS are working together. Virginia Quinn, APS exploitation specialist for the San Antonio Region (Region 8), has been with the agency for about a year. Prior to that, she was a captain for the Harris County Sherriff's Office for 22 years, and after that she worked as an internal fraud and exploitation investigator for the City of San Antonio for 8 years.

"I am uniquely placed here. I have a foot in the door in law enforcement and a foot in the door in APS. Since I've been here, I've been able to make inroads with the white collar crimes unit at the San Antonio Police Department."

Before her involvement, Quinn said that cases were not being investigated as much by law enforcement. "The law requires APS to make referrals to law enforcement in suspicious cases," said Quinn. "Before any criminal case could move forward, law enforcement has to proceed. Now I follow up with Lieutenant Lashbrook and Sergeant Sides with the white collar crimes unit at the San Antonio Police Department. I point out cases that are worthy of prosecuting because they have a sufficient trail of evidence. I also work well with Joanne Woodruff, a district attorney with the Bexar County Elder Fraud Unit."

Quinn is a member of the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners and the Southwestern Automated Clearing House Association, a trade association for financial institutions. "We get together once a month to share stories about scams and keep awareness in the banking community," she said. "I talk to people in the banking community on a daily basis because that is often our first, solid lead." In fact, Frost Bank, the Bexar County District Attorney's Office, and APS  are working together to put on a special training day for banking and law enforcement personnel on November 4, 2009, in San Antonio.

Quinn said that in the past, some people assumed that if an elderly person had given permission for spending money, it could not be a crime, but this is not true. Law enforcement recognizes that “consent” from a person who lacks sufficient mental capacity is not "informed consent" under the law.  Therefore, using that person's funds, accepting money from them (because they are "generous") or using that person’s credit may be a crime.

Elizabeth Sanchez, an exploitation specialist based in Corpus Christi, has been with APS for 17 years. She saw the success in San Antonio and consulted with DFPS staff, law enforcement, and the district attorney's office in San Antonio to help improve cooperation in her own community.

"Now, the Corpus Christi Police Department has agreed to house a police officer with our staff, which will start in April 2010," said Sanchez. "In the mean time, we are planning for ongoing cross training, which will begin in November."

Sanchez said cooperation with law enforcement is getting better. "We now have a better understanding about the whole issue of financial exploitation," she said. "We discuss issues like undue influence, misappropriation of fiduciary property, and misuse of power of attorney. Law enforcement and district attorneys offices are realizing financial exploitation is a crime."

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