Why it’s challenging to prosecute certain elder fraud cases

Scams targeting older adults are becoming increasingly common, and if scammers get caught, prosecuting those cases brings a distinct set of challenges, according to two attorneys in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for D.C.

In some instances, it’s challenging to prosecute scams because perpetrators may be overseas, Jennifer Mika, a senior assistant U.S. attorney, said. Still, the office has seen some success prosecuting those cases in U.S. District Court. In D.C. Superior Court, the office has been effective in prosecuting scams that involve caregivers and fiduciaries. Those cases usually involve people in a position of trust or power taking advantage of that, Mika said.

Broadly, elder fraud cases are rising across the country, including in D.C. Mika said, for every person who comes forward and reports it, there are over 40 others who aren’t reporting it when they get exploited.

Ahead of Saturday, which is Elder Fraud Awareness Day, the office is urging the public to be vigilant by keeping track of documents and reporting suspicious activity to law enforcement quickly.

“Nationally, this is a crisis,” Mika said. “The numbers pre-COVID, on the conservative end, the average annual loss due to financial exploitation was at least $3 billion.”

A lot of times, Mika said the office works with victims who “for various reasons aren’t able to testify or aren’t able to give us a lot of information,” either because they have dementia or by the time the office gets the case, the victim has passed away.

A lack of documentation and record-keeping also presents a challenge in prosecuting such cases.

If an elder has an arrangement in which they’re getting help with finances, “document it, write it down and anything that can be written or is in text message or emails. That is so helpful to us. Otherwise, it is a lot of he said, she said, and that’s a big challenge that we face.”

Sometimes, cases aren’t reported immediately because victims are embarrassed about getting scammed or don’t understand what’s been going on, according to Linda Monroe, deputy chief in the major crimes section of the U.S. Attorney for D.C.’s office.

“That just makes it a lot harder,” Monroe said.

The D.C. code has a specific crime titled financial exploitation of elders and vulnerable adults, and it’s broad, allowing the office to “prosecute these crimes the way that I think they should be prosecuted,” Mika said.

Scams are getting more complex

Generally, the scams are becoming more sophisticated in nature, Monroe said. Scammers can use fake numbers and turn to artificial intelligence to mimic someone else’s voice when they call a potential victim.

“Everything is getting a lot easier for the scammers,” Monroe said. “People have to be a lot more vigilant to really avoid being scammed.”

The types of scams vary, too. Sometimes they’re lottery scams in which someone calls and says a person has won a prize. They ask for an address, date of birth and Social Security number.

In other cases, Monroe said, a caller claims a computer is broken and needs to be fixed immediately. A caller may pretend to be from the IRS, urging a potential victim to pay them for taxes.

There’s also a “grandparents scam” in which a caller will use the voice of a loved one who sounds like they’re in trouble.

“What all these scams have in common is that they require you to give information or money immediately,” Monroe said. “In all of these situations, what people need to do is to stop, take a breath, hang up the phone and then verify.”

Usually, several people have been victimized several times before police are alerted to a scam, D.C. police Cmdr. Kevin Kentish said.

“As the population ages and as our technology increases, people are able to do these from the comfort of the house,” Kentish said. “They don’t have to leave, they can call on the phone, they can get on a computer. It’s basically kind of a lazy way of getting a lot of money. They don’t have to put much effort into it once they get it down pat.”

Awareness tips

Kentish said it’s essential to keep notes. Anytime someone notices a change in spending, a new friend or caregiver appears, or a family member that’s never shown up before stops by, adult protective services should be alerted.

“We’ll look into it, even if it turns out to be perfectly fine,” Kentish said.

Monroe, with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, said it’s important to review financial documents on a regular basis “to make sure that accounts are not being drained or there’s not unusual activity in your bank accounts.”

It’s also important to make sure elders are surrounding themselves with people who are trustworthy, and are communicating with family members about what’s going on with caregivers.

“So many people feel shame or are embarrassed about being exploited or that maybe they’ve made a mistake, and they let that caregiver take that debit card one time. And now, all of a sudden, they’re seeing other purchases,” Mika said.

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Scott Gelman

Scott Gelman is a digital editor and writer for WTOP. A South Florida native, Scott graduated from the University of Maryland in 2019. During his time in College Park, he worked for The Diamondback, the school’s student newspaper.

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