By David M. Kessler, Elder Fraud Expert, Protecting the Elderly
This presentation was delivered in live webinar format in 2015. David’s comments have been edited for clarity and length.
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There are unknown aspects of elder financial exploitation that most people never understand, unless they actually sit and visit and get to know the elderly victim, or they have an elderly victim in their own personal lives. There are red flags that hopefully you’ll recognize.
In all elder exploitation there’s some form of undue influence and deception or lies, the pressures that are put upon the elderly victim. The predator of the elderly has the same mentality as the predator who victimizes children for sexual gratification. The same power and control techniques are used with our elderly victims for financial exploitation. These crimes often aren’t just random. They’re very well planned. They’re very well organized. Elderly predators have an attitude that the elderly victim’s money or assets is something that they’ve worked hard to get at, and they’re entitled to it.
Unknown Aspects of Elder Financial Exploitation
It’s not about the money. First, understand the mindset of the elderly victim, and what a handshake meant in the era in which they were raised. Across the country, gentlemen tell me, “Mr. Kessler, I bought my first house, I did my first business transaction based on a handshake. I didn’t need a contract. I didn’t need attorneys verifying everything.” As we understand the mindset of the elderly victim, we learn that they deal on the premise of a handshake.
Very rarely do I hear from an elderly victim, “Mr. Kessler, are you going to get my money back?” Usually, what I hear is, “Mr. Kessler, how could they have done that to me? I thought they cared about me. I thought this person loved me.” What we’re really talking about, which you’ll never find in any criminal code book across the United States when looking for charges against an offender, is a charge that’s titled, “Loss of Dignity or Self Esteem.” This is the part of the crime that is very misunderstood, that the elderly victim is highly embarrassed that they were taken advantage of and scammed.
I hear from the elderly victims, “Mr. Kessler, I’m afraid now if tell my family or if my kids find out, are they going to step in? Are they going to want to take over my finances? Are they going to want to think about putting me in a nursing home? Are they going to want to take away my driver’s license? Do they think I can no longer live alone?” That is one of the main reasons why that elderly victims do not report or come forward with these crimes, because of what they perceive is going to be the ramifications of their actions when all they are is a trusting, good person who has been taken advantage of because of the era that they were raised in.
I’ve had far too many elderly victims of fraud die early because of the stress and the shame that it’s put on them.
Common RED FLAGS of financial elder abuse
Often times, the reason the money is being stolen from the elderly victim is because of some vice that the predator has. Substance abuse, whether it’s drugs or alcohol, is the number one issue. Gambling is another. There’s always some sort of reason that elderly person is targeted.
In 90 percent of all of the investigations that I get involved in, the predator of the elderly is someone in a very close proximity in trust to the victim, mainly, their family. An elderly victim will be brought in to meet with you to set up their estate planning, to set up their finances. They’ll have their son, their daughter, their granddaughter, or their care provider. With these types of crimes, particularly when it’s their own family, what are we asking them to do, if they get involved in cooperating in investigation? That ultimate goal is potentially putting their family member in prison. Seniors say to me, “Mr. Kessler, I do not want to get my son, my grandson, my daughter-in-law in trouble.”
Isolating the victim from family and friends is a two prong attack that the predator uses when trying to victimize the elderly. They get the elderly victim where they no longer have contact with family, friends, and neighbors because the more isolation, the less likely that someone will observe or get suspicious of the predator’s behavior.
The vast majority of the cases that I investigate occur where the senior is still living in their own home, and they’ve had a family member move into their home. The only interaction that elderly person may have in a day is with the predator themselves, no other outside influence. The elderly victim isn’t even allowed anymore to go to the mailbox and get their own mail because the predator knows that the mail may contain credit card, bank, and insurance statements.
First the predator may do all of the victim’s banking over the internet where the elderly victim wouldn’t even have the ability to get on and check their own finances. The second thing a predator does is take the victim attorney or doctor shopping, once they get involved and get their trust. The third approach is to take the victim financial bank or credit union shopping. Think about the elderly in your own lives. They’ve been going to the same doctors for years. They’ve been going to the same financial institution for years. They’ve had the same family attorney for years. Those people are familiar, and this is an important, they know the victim’s history and family situation because they’ve been dealing with them as clients for years. That’s why it’s very important as financial planners who deal with the elderly that you try to meet them individually or privately so there is no undue influence by the predator. More importantly, make sure they understand the documents and the financial paperwork that you’re going over with them.
If there’s undue influence, it’s already been rehearsed with them; they’ve been told what to say. When they get into your office, they’ve been programmed to answer the questions that they feel will be asked that best benefits the predator who brought them to the meeting. By understanding these red flags, we have certain gut feelings or certain things that set off our warning system. Whenever you get these gut feelings that something just may not be right, these transactions need to be slowed down. You need to have a plan in place.
Make up an excuse why you have to leave the office and get a manager. Explain to the manager that you feel very uncomfortable with this transaction. Allow a manager or a second party to come into the room. All of these things are going to clearly make a statement to the predator that you’re possibly keyed in, that you recognize that there may be some impropriety going on with this transaction. What’s best for the client, in your situation, is to not go through with a transaction if you feel like there’s something wrong.
How do the predators of the elderly locate their victims?
The elderly have probably had the same telephone number for 50 years. Open up your local phone book, and pick the last name of Smith. Look under the name Smith and profile the first names: Stacy, Morgan, or Agnes. Which one is most likely a senior citizen? Most likely, Agnes. What has the phone book just provided you with? Agnes Smith, her address and her phone number.
I’ve had cases of elder exploitation where the predators have looked in the local newspapers targeting obituaries, which often give information such as date and times of funerals, which most likely means the houses are empty. Leo Smith has passed away, so most likely, you have Agnes, a senior, living alone who is very vulnerable. And it’s very easy to locate them.
Predators use a number of techniques to get into our elderlies’ homes and to convince them to give away their money or to allow the contractors or the roofers or the driveway pavers to do work. The No. 1 thing the predators look for on our elderly homes is the American flag flying on the front of the house because, as they tell me, “You know those old people, they cherish the flag.” The elderly have been flying those flags often times since they came back from Vietnam, since they came back from World War II once they returned back from Korea.
No. 2, that’s never taught but the predators know, the number one fear that seniors tell me in their everyday lives is not crime, it’s falling. There’s a myth with the seniors, you fall, you break a hip, and you go to a nursing home. The next thing you know, after the nursing home, it’s possibly in a grave. So when you’re driving down communities, and you’re looking at houses, and you see blue, green, or grey Astroturf carpeting on porches or steps that easily identifies that the person living there is really concerned about falling.
Or, how many of you today have the old style antennas still attached to your chimney or on your roof? Most of us have Direct TV or cable TV, but do not have the old antenna on top of the roof that draws attention that maybe that’s still an older person living in that house. Think about your grandparents or your aunts and uncles who still have the old style aluminum screen doors with the round emblem that has the initial in that round emblem of the people with their last name initial on that door. How many of you have relatives that still have, on their garage door, a big initial representing the last name?
Predators look for bird feeders. I deal with an awful lot of senior citizens that are lonely. They have no family. They’re isolated. Those birds have become their family. Having the seven or eight bird feeders in their yards, filling them up daily and sitting back looking at those birds as their family is very therapeutic. Predators know that those bird feeders, often times, to the elderly, are their only family, giving comfort like the St. Mary’s statues or other religious emblems frequently in front of the homes.
These crimes are planned and organized, not random when elders get the knock at the door. Predators like to start the conversation with the elderly about love of God and love of children. What senior is not sympathetic to a child in need or sympathetic to their faith?
Transient criminal groups often will have three generations, grandfather, father, and son. The son, at 7 or 8 years old, is already trained and conditioned what to do to try to help gain access to that senior’s house when they knock at the door. “Ma’am/sir, we’re in the neighborhood. We have some left over black top. We see your gutters are full. We can clean them. Or, the Lord sent us here.”
What senior citizen with a 7 or 8-year-old little boy standing there tugging on his blue jeans, making the gesture he has to go to the restroom, or on a 90 degree day saying to his dad in front of the senior, “Dad, I’m really thirsty. Dad, I need something to drink,” What senior do you know who would not volunteer to allow that young man to come in the house, get a drink of water or to use the restroom? Because the generation they were raised in, that’s the right thing to do.
But, unfortunately, that young child at 7, 8, 9 years old is already trained and conditioned that once they get in the house, they’re burglars. Two areas they look for: A) Straight to the master bedroom where the senior hides their money because of the era they grew up in, the Depression, never trusting financial institutions. Then B) Head for the rest room medicine cabinets for pain medication, because a lot of these predators have substance abuse issues. These are organized criminals. Often in our investigations, we target them under the RICO statutes here in the state of Ohio is of the highest felony level equivalent to the felony level of homicides and more violent offenses.
The elderly have worked all their lives, getting up at 4:00, 5:00, 6:00 a.m. in the morning. Now they go in the morning to meet friends or meet co-workers or other retirees. They like to go to malls or different restaurants. The No. 1 restaurant I see where the predators go try to target their victims is McDonald’s. Or think about how many women are going to the grocery store, Wal-Mart or Target, park their cars, get out and walk in the parking lot, where you have a lot of your pigeon drop frauds. Predators watch the handicap spots, see the senior pull in, walk up, and offer to help them with their cart, or the entrance to the store, anything to befriend or be nice to the elderly victim, anything to start to build trust.
What is the word “CON” is short for when you deal with these crimes? Confidence. These are confidence crimes. The elderly victim will never allow you to clean their gutters, do their driveway, trim their bushes, cut their trees, unless they feel like you’re a good person. So obviously, it’s always ”Yes, ma’am; no, sir; the Lord sent me here today; I’m just working hard because I got four children at home, and this is how I provide for my family.”
The No. 1 deterrent I try to get across to the seniors is think about the contractor or the person that comes to your door and solicits you for work. If they have to knock at your door and solicit you, they’re either a bad contractor who has to solicit work the hard way, which you don’t want to deal with, or a criminal.
The final type of predator we frequently see with elder fraud is family members. The most prevalent issues I deal with family members stealing from their own are substance abuse, gambling, or their own business failures, such that they have to go to the seniors in their life to steal from them to keep their businesses afloat. The family member is trying to steal their inheritance or get the inheritance they think they may not get early, pure greed. Undue influence and deception are always present, a two pronged approach; isolate the victim from their family and friends so no one will see or get red flags of the victimization.
The predator may impress the victim that they’re a knight in shining armor so the victim trusts them. A deception often used with the elderly is the scare tactic of “Your family wants to put you in a nursing home. I’m the only one that wants you to stay in your house. Everybody else wants to tuck you away and never come visit you. I will never allow that to happen.” The other scare tactic is “The government is going to take your money or your home.” Anything that’s going to upset the senior to make them believe that the predator has their best interests in mind.
A common tactic used by the perpetrator is killing with kindness. It’s very sad how many times seniors across the country have told me when they’ve been victimized, “Mr. Kessler, the person or the predator or the person who stole from me was nicer to me than my own children.” The predator has to be nicer than the kids, friendlier, everything that that senior needs them to be for that senior to gain the confidence to give them what they want. Another tactic is being the knight in shining armor. In other words, the only thing that matters is, “I’m going to look after you, Grandma Agnes. I’ll never let you die in a nursing home.”
Remember, we can’t blame the victim for the victimization, whether an elderly victim is robbed when their purse is stolen as they’re walking out of the local grocery store, or if they’re taken advantage of in a con or a scam. Often times, the victim will not come forward because they’re going to think that their family or their friends think they’re dumb, they’re stupid, and that they should know better. Think about how the trauma will affect you if you find out after the death of your elderly loved one that they never felt comfortable coming to tell you about their victimization because they were afraid that you were going to yell at them or criticize them or take their check book away. Those thoughts would never occur if mom or dad came out of the local grocery store and had a purse snatched or was knocked down and with a wallet stolen. Why would we yell at them for being a victim of a fraud or a con?
If we use compassion and understanding, more of our elderly victims will come forward. We need to figure out how the victimization of the person was planned. The predators of the elderly put a lot of time and effort into their plans. They get a mindset that they’re entitled to what they steal because they put so much work into it. We must never blame the victim for their victimization. We’re not ones to judge which crime is more important than another.
How should you respond when you suspect the client is a victim of financial exploitation? When you get that gut feeling, if you feel like there could be something wrong, that’s when you have to take the time and speak with your elderly client privately. Let them talk to you and listen. Being a patient listener is so important because, often times, they will repeat and tell you, as the professional, what they want to do because they’ve been told and conditioned what to say. When in doubt, question because you will learn a lot more.
Say, “Ma’am, how did you know about this?” “Well, my grandson told me about it. He said this is what I need to ask for.” Those are the red flags, and by listening will tell you, there may be a problem. Understand when the victim is overwhelmed. Often times, they’re so prepped that they they’ll stutter, forget things, or tell you, the professional, the way they were conditioned to say it. They get out of sorts or frustrated. Let the victim have all the time in the world they need.
Each situation is unique. There are no set rules for all victims. Frequently clients don’t even realize they’re victims. If their house was broken into or their car stolen, they would understand and know that they’re victims. But they don’t realize when they’ve been conditioned to participate in their own victimization, especially if the perpetrator is their own family member, and the last thing they want to do is get their family member in trouble.
Takeaways for the Advisors
Trust your gut instincts. You’ve had a lot of interaction with people over the years. When something just doesn’t seem to be correct, take time to investigate, explore, and be nosey in a professional manner. Ask a lot of questions to see if the victim understands what they’re telling you, or if there is something they’ve been told to tell you. Make sure the transaction is understood by the elderly client. Often times, we just perceive or think the victim understands.
Make sure they clearly know the explanation from you, the professional, not from the potential predator. Do not allow someone else to influence the elderly client’s decision. For example, you’re sitting there with a grandma and grandson. You ask grandma questions, grandson answers all of the questions. That’s a huge red flag. Or you ask grandpa a question, and he looks at his son for acknowledgment that it’s okay to answer you. That type of behavior is a control factor from the predator to the victim. Try to separate the two and ask your questions to the victim.
Tom Brokaw said, “We owe it to America’s greatest generation of senior citizens to protect them from those who are determined to steal their assets and dignity.” Think about the seniors in your lives and what they’ve done for us and for their country. We need to go the extra mile to protect the things they’ve worked so hard for.
Now you’ve heard how perpetrators victimize elderly, and what it is like to be a victim including the emotions that the elderly go through when victimized. In my opinion, after 34 years of working these crimes, elder fraud is misdiagnosed such that the system victimizes the elderly a second time, first, by the predator; second, often times, by the criminal justice system. Thank you for being proactive and learning more about a topic that is so misunderstood.
About the author:
David Kessler, Elder Fraud Expert, speaks throughout the country about the escalating problem of exploitation of the elderly. As a keynote speaker and trainer on the topic of exploitation of the elderly, David addresses all facets of these crimes, including Undue influence, Sweetheart Swindles, Power of Attorney Thefts, and Home Improvement Scams.
Crimes against the elderly are highly under reported throughout the United States. Too often, incidents of stealing from an elderly victim are misdiagnosed as a “family matter,” or a civil court issue. Protecting the elderly from crimes of fraud committed against the elderly is the focus of David Kessler’s training and consulting efforts. He has dedicated his professional life to providing education and guidance for public and private sector professionals on the topic of exploitation of the elderly, and making certain those who prey on elderly victims are punished.
David M. Kessler is a retired Police Officer (former Commander of the Financial Crimes Unit) with the Dekalb County Police Department in Decatur, Georgia. David was recruited by the Ohio Attorney General in 1999 to serve as Chief Investigator of the Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Unit. Within this role, David’s primary focus became the protection of senior citizens against those who would prey upon them. With extensive knowledge and vast experience in the area of elder exploitation, David chose to leave the government sector in 2008 to form his own consulting business, Protecting The Elderly.
David holds the distinction of being a member of the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners – A.C.F.E. and has a Bachelor of Science degree in Criminal Justice.
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©2015, David Kessler. All rights reserved. Used with permission.