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Experts fear financial abuse is on the rise amid the coronavirus pandemic

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ATLANTA >> The signs of trouble are clear to J.D. Frazier as he works to help a woman sliding into dementia.

The state-registered decision-making guide is helping her contact experts to arrange and protect her assets. But she is easily swayed, and family members who lost income in the pandemic are on her doorstep. She agreed with them to cancel her appointment with a lawyer.

Now Frazier is having trouble reaching her.

It’s an additional toll among older people during the pandemic: Their diminished social contacts make it less likely that others would notice problems that could put them at risk of exploitation.

“The pandemic, it’s a perfect storm,” Frazier said.

Elder financial exploitation ballooned following the 2008 housing bust: everything from scam calls and con jobs to the most common type of all, family financial exploitation. And exploitation and fraud are likely ballooning now, experts say.

“Imagine 22 million people lost their jobs in the last nine months, and 10 million have not regained their job,” said Kristen Lewis, an attorney in special- needs estate planning who helps her clients try to protect their assets. “People do desperate things.”

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of the Inspector General said it has seen a spike in elder harm and neglect, and is concerned about the level of fraud. The FBI said in a statement that fraud in general has increased, driven in part by COVID-19 related schemes, and that elder fraud was an FBI priority.

It’s nearly impossible to get numbers that tell the true story, however.

“About 1 in 23 cases are reported,” said David Blake, a financial forensic specialist with the Georgia Department of Human Services, in a November webinar on the subject. “It’s like an iceberg.”

About 90% of perpetrators of elder abuse, neglect or fraud are adult children or spouses, and often caretakers, Blake said. The acts can range from unduly pressuring a senior to give money, or asking at all when the person has lost their cognitive ability; to outright fraud or identity theft.

Blake added, “It becomes worse in the pandemic.”

Seniors can also be at risk from other caregivers and from strangers.

In Georgia a caseworker with the state’s Adult Protective Services was arrested in September on suspicion of stealing money from a Toccoa man he was supposed to be protecting.

The Federal Trade Commission has warned that social isolation due to the novel coronavirus lends itself to successful scams. As seniors isolate, scammers are offering help in running errands or performing tasks, like landscaping, but taking off with the money. Seniors are also targeted with telephone scams, told a loved one needs money immediately to pay a hospital bill, get home from a foreign country or pay off a debt.

“My in-laws just received a call, claiming my daughter was in jail for a car accident & wanted $16,000,” one reader posted on the commission website. “She sounded like my daughter.”

Frazier, who is a quadriplegic, is registered as a “neutral” with the Georgia Office of Dispute Resolution. He has seen in his work how the psychological stress of the pandemic plays a double whammy on seniors who are vulnerable.

First, he said, it isolates them from regular contact with people who might raise red flags, like church friends. Second, the isolation can become a stress of its own, possibly muddling a person’s decision-making abilities when someone comes asking for money, while also making people yearn for connection.

“And they don’t know how to deal with it, and in many times they can’t, they’ve lost cognitive ability,” he said.

For some families, he stressed, the helping hand of a relative can work out well. For troubled ones, though, it can lead to draining the life savings of someone who has nothing else to live on.

Lewis, the attorney, said that of the cases she knows, they’re reported so late in the game that “maybe 15% of the time” was there anything left to recover for the senior.

“One important way to minimize the risk of this happening is knowing common characteristics of perpetrators,” she said. “And having a substance abuse problem is way up on the list because people need something to feed their habit.”

And “during a pandemic,” Lewis added, “people turn to booze or pot for their stress.”

When the story of fraud and abuse in the pandemic is finally known, “I think it will be easier for the perpetrators to get away with it,” Lewis said. “And the dollar amounts will probably be higher.”

As for Frazier, he is trying to figure out whether there’s a way to ensure his client’s best interests still get served. “The bad news is, this stuff happens,” he said. “We usually get to people after the damage is done.”


Possible signs of financial abuse:

>> New “person of trust” isolates the victim

>> Change in status: used to save every penny, now they are withdrawing money every week

>> Victim appoints someone new to handle their affairs

>> Missing jewelry

>> Quick deeds, of family property or businesses

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