Older, vulnerable and swindled by those they loved

When a longtime friend asked for a loan to help get her boyfriend back on his feet, Maria Voltl, 84, decided to help. Voltl had lent money to her friend before, and it had always been paid back. So without consulting a professional, she handed over $500,000.

Now Voltl is regretting her generosity. None of the money, which was her retirement nest egg, has been repaid, even after a judgment against the couple.

“I treated my friend like a daughter,” said Voltl, of Sparks, Nev. “She said she’d take care of me. Then she sold me out.”

As a result, Voltl lives near the poverty line. She shops at Goodwill, no longer travels and bought a cheaper car with better gas mileage. “My last nice years are ruined,” she said.

Financial crimes against elders are taking a toll on lives and pocketbooks. And trusted caregivers — the friends and relatives who offer support and guidance — are often the ones at fault, according to legal and financial specialists. The over-65 segment is expected to grow to 20 percent of the total U.S. population by 2050 from 13 percent today, according to the Census Bureau, and financial abuse is expected to rise in tandem, draining hard-won retirement money.

Older adults are appealing — and vulnerable — targets. “They have a lot of money that was saved over the years,” says Tiffany Couch, the founder of Acuity Forensics, a forensic accounting firm in Vancouver, Wash. They are also usually debt-free and own their homes. As dementia and Alzheimer’s rates climb, the elderly may also be increasingly incapable of protecting themselves from fraud.

Their caregivers may be dealing with a lot of debt and pressure and suffering through a bad economy, Couch said. So they may decide to use an elder’s money to shore up their own finances.

“The people stealing from us are never the ones we think will do it,” said Couch, whose own financial abuse cases have been increasing. “They could be a trusted friend, family member or caretaker. And their typical defense is that ‘they were going to die anyway, so I thought I’d get my inheritance.’”

Financial abuse of the elderly has no income boundaries, said Leslie Rice-Albrecht, a former detective who’s retired from the San Diego Police Department. “The abused elder can be someone on a fixed income or someone worth millions,” she said. “But money is always at the root, one way or another.”

The Brooke Astor case is an all-too-familiar example of financial elder abuse in which one person was given control of assets, Couch said.

Astor’s son, Anthony Marshall, was convicted in 2009 of defrauding his socialite mother of tens of millions of dollars, using some of it to buy a yacht and other luxuries. Marshall had also been given power of attorney, in which a caretaker has control over another person’s financial transactions, and where financial abuse can occur unseen.

“Power of attorney gives 100 percent access of an elder’s bank accounts to a single person with no oversight,” Couch said. “When that happens, there isn’t much that you can do.”

Those all-important keys to the financial kingdom can allow a caretaker to steal money easily. The crimes often begin with the theft of smaller items like jewelry and blank checks.

Later, larger items are stolen, according to a MetLife Mature Market Institute study. Caretakers or guardians might sign over a house deed to themselves or liquidate assets. If the smaller crimes are not detected, they gradually increase, Couch said.

“These financial ruses can be called pre-grave robbing,” said Gary Altman, founder of the estate planning law firm Altman & Associates. “The will may be changed at the last moment or power of attorney used to take someone’s assets.”

Mickey Rooney was also said to be the victim of pre-grave robbing by his stepson, who had been given power of attorney.

The stepson had taken over Rooney’s finances, said Bruce Ross, a Los Angeles-based trial lawyer at Holland & Knight. He then began draining millions of dollars from Rooney’s accounts, according to published reports. When the actor died in April, he was broke and in debt, Ross said.

In testimony to Congress, Rooney urged abused elderly people not to stay silent as he had.

Victims should speak out and get help, specialists say. Adam Fried, a partner at the Reminger law firm in Cleveland, urged people to contact their lawyer and a state Adult Protective Services agency. “It’s their job to protect the elderly population,” he said.

In the end, prevention is crucial.

Practice good oversight of anyone who has power of attorney, Couch said, since the problem can be discovered just by regularly checking bank statements.

“Don’t give away the keys to the kingdom,” she said. “Once people have access to your accounts, not much can be done.”

Couch advised older adults to have one other person look at bank statements and canceled checks. “You can have your kids, accountants or financial advisers do it,” she said. “In many cases, someone writes a check to themselves, and that can be flagged.”

Have checks and balances in place, Altman said. Examples include having co-trustees for irrevocable trusts that hold assets and co-agents under the power of attorney. “Also, having a guardian or conservator appointed can be useful,” he said.

Once financial abuse happens, though, cases are rarely punished, specialists said. The defrauded person may be afraid of looking foolish or causing anguish in the family.

“Seniors are afraid that they’ll lose their independence,” said Janet Carruthers, an accountant at Sterling Money Management in Virginia. “They aren’t going to call the police.”

The red flags signaling financial abuse can include abrupt changes in bank accounts, unexplained withdrawals or altered legal documents, specialists said. “Watch for sudden changes in finances,” said Jim Ian, a financial planner at Barnum Financial Group in Connecticut. “They can include selling large blocks of stocks or taking an unnecessary tax liability.”

Also, watch for caregivers who want to isolate the elderly person from others, Ross said.

Voltl is less trusting than before. Her motto now is, “God, please protect me from my friends.”

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