POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Jun 21, 2011
With age comes wisdom, but that's only the best-case scenario. In the worst cases, elders become more and more vulnerable to scammers.
And given that seniors occupy a larger segment of the Hawaii population than in most places, it's gratifying to see law enforcement pledging to focus on the prosecution of such fraudsters. This is a problem that will only increase in scale over time.
Last week Honolulu Prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro announced plans to expand his office's unit assigned to crimes against seniors, which have doubled in the past two years. The focus will be on financial fraud targeting elders. That's the right approach: Financial abuse of older citizens has become a concern of national proportions.
This month the MetLife Mature Market Institute, a research organization tied to the Metropolitan Life Insurance Co., issued an update to its comprehensive 2009 study on the extent of elder financial abuse. In the intervening years, the situation has worsened. The annual financial loss is now roughly $2.9 billion, up $300 million from the earlier estimate.
The most commonly reported incident was being defrauded by strangers — 51 percent of the instances — but family, friends or neighbors are implicated about 34 percent of the time, according to the update.
It's more than just the money involved. Violence often spills over into cases that start as fraud, according to MetLife, due to the "elemental greed and disregard for the victim that surrounded financial abuse." People who prey on elders are sometimes themselves financially desperate, but others are so lacking in a moral grounding that they don't stop at a simple scam.
In Hawaii, the victim count seems to be on the rise. Prosecutors logged 57 elder abuse cases in 2009, 102 cases last year; 2011 is on pace to beat that tally, with 60 cases counted through May alone.
But the ultimate protection for seniors is prevention through awareness, not prosecution. With that in mind, the Honolulu Police Department has a public education program comprising brochures and posters in buses. Local resources are limited, but an adequate educational outreach program needs to be more forceful than that. And there should be help from the federal government for a problem that extends to all 50 states.
Federal financial reform legislation did include the creation of a new Office of Financial Protection for Older Americans, but recent efforts to boost educational programs have stalled in Congress. They should be resuscitated.
In the meantime, Hawaii law enforcement should form partnerships with community groups that could help leverage scarce funds to get out warnings about current scams more effectively. It isn't only the seniors who need to be reached but also their adult children, who are often their parents' key advocates.
Families should heed alerts from the criminal justice system and remind members to avoid overtures from seemingly helpful strangers — it's not always only the elders who have the targets on their backs. A visit to scambusters.org, which summarizes the most current alerts, is a good first step for anyone.
The Aloha State likes to think of itself as caring for its elders. It's an ideal but, sadly, not a reality, and everyone needs to arm themselves against this outrage to prevent pain, wherever that's possible.