Fraud Prevention Summit 2012

Remarks of:

Ventura County District Attorney
Gregory D. Totten

Fraud Prevention Summit 2012

September 13, 2012
Marriott Courtyard, Oxnard

Sociologists tell us that within healthy cultures there exists a social compact of sorts where each generation honors the contributions of its predecessor by caring for their needs in old age. Pulitzer Prize winning author Pearl Buck put it best when she wrote, “The [truest] test of a civilization is in the way that it cares for its [most] helpless members.”

Combating elder abuse and financial exploitation is really about protecting freedom. When the aged are victimized, all too often they lose the financial independence and personal freedom that retirees most treasure. And, in extreme cases, they may even lose their will to live and die prematurely. Tragically, fear and embarrassment causes many of these victims to remain silent. In other cases, physical and mental impairments prevent reporting.

When I consider the elders we are trying to protect, my thoughts often turn to my own maternal grandmother. She was a very gentle and humble woman who, despite hardship and suffering, brought joy into to the lives of everyone she touched. As a child, she witnessed her family lose everything and even saw the grief over their sudden turn of fortunes eventually take the life her father.

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Later, she was a single mother at a time when such circumstances were frowned upon. To raise her children and make ends meet, she worked in a factory during the day and as a seamstress at night. Her dress was always modest, she never knew the security of a large bank account, or the comfort of the cars and homes we take for granted.

But much like the Bible’s account of the poor widow who gave her last two coins to the church treasury, my grandmother gave generously from the heart. She taught us important lessons of life and faith that shaped and still influence us today. Her life mattered. And though she was never a victim of elder abuse, the memory of her reminds me that there are lot of grandmothers and grandfathers out there who may be nameless strangers to us but who lead lives that have value and deserve protection.

Demographers report that during the last century our senior population grew from around 3 million to more than 34 million. To put this is perspective, in 1900 1 out of 25 Americans was age 65 or older, by 2000 1 in 8 were 65 or older. And it’s projected that by 2030 there will more than 70 million, or 1 in every 5 Americans 65 or older. California has the largest senior population in the country. In Ventura County, 11 percent of our population is over the age of 65 and this number is projected to double by 2020.

Notwithstanding their formidable numbers, in our modern culture where so much emphasis is placed on youth, appearance, and athletic prowess our elders are often forgotten and ignored or worse – held in contempt for failing keep up with the fast pace of life. Many become isolated, lonely, and limited by health conditions. Alienation or benign neglect from family members is also common.

Sadly, after working a lifetime to purchase homes and accumulate resources for their retirement, far too many become perfect targets for criminals and may end up walking through the doors of our offices in need of services.

Let me give you several case examples:

  • An 81-year-old victim’s grandson quit his job and moved in with her purportedly to take care of the ailing woman. Several years go by before a granddaughter discovered that the grandson has been running up the victims credit cards. She also discovered that the grandson took the victim to an attorney and had the attorney to prepare a springing power of attorney. Later, the grandson contacted the attorney and requested the power of attorney be immediate. Thankfully, the attorney declined to do that without first consulting with the victim.
  • In another case, the defendant is a caregiver at a senior facility where the victim lives. The defendant befriended the victim and had her authorize an ATM card for him, which he promptly used to deplete the victims entire life savings. If that was not enough, the defendant had an attorney draft a will leaving the balance of the victim’s estate to him by stating that he was like a grandson to her. Fortunately, the will was never executed because the victim was unwilling to leave the facility to sign the will.
  • Another defendant quit her job to become the sole caregiver for her mother and grandmother, both of whom suffered from dementia and early stage Alzheimer’s. She convinced the victims to open a second mortgage on their home and promptly took $90,000 to in proceeds purchase a motor home. The loan agent and other professionals involved in the transaction did not question fact that they never saw or spoke to the victims. In an all too common scenario, the victim quit making payments on the mortgage and the house went into foreclosure.

Here in Ventura County, nearly 90 percent of all elder abuse cases prosecuted involve a perpetrator that is a family member and more than half of our elder abuse cases involve financial exploitation.

It is estimated that one-third of all personal wealth in this country is concentrated in people aged 65 or older. Statewide, the Department of Corporations reports that older Californian’s have lost more than $3.8 billion to fraudulent investment schemes. It is also estimated that 70 percent of Californians over the age of 50 have been solicited by individuals intent upon defrauding them.

The District Attorney’s Office is committed to serving and protecting all members of our society, and especially those who are most vulnerable. Each year, in an effort to combat these hidden crimes, we give presentations to senior centers, churches, and community groups that are intended to help seniors avoid victimization. We also believe strongly in partnerships and work closely with other public agencies like Adult Protective Services, local law enforcement, and the Area Agency on Aging to intervene and prevent further abuse whenever possible.

With the support of the Sheriff and the municipal police chiefs, a training protocol for local law enforcement was recently printed that highlights the warning signs of abuse, as well as what to if abuse is suggested.

Beyond prevention and prosecution, we use the strength of our partnerships to enforce and in some cases even reform public policy affecting the protection of elders.

In the last decade, the California legislature enacted a number of significant reforms to address this problem including everything from a specific Elder Abuse Penal Code section to mandated reporting to greater regulation of fiduciaries and conservators.

In 2007, a new mandated reporting scheme for financial institutions went into effect. The requirements, which can be found in Welfare and Institutions Code section 15630.1, made officers and employees of depository institutions as defined by federal law mandated reporters. It imposes up to $5,000 in civil fines for the failure to report suspected elder financial abuse.

Yet good public policy and highly trained and committed professionals is not enough to address this problem, because the biggest obstacles to the prevention of elder abuse are:

  • Isolation and loneliness of elder victims
  • Secrecy and nature of offenses
  • Elders tendency to trust

Each of you can make a difference as a part of the social compact I mentioned at the outset:

  • Presence here today – best protectors are seniors themselves
  • Community of friends and family
  • Watching and reporting

I want to thank the Area Agency on Aging, the Senior Medicare Patrol, the Health Insurance Counseling and Advocacy Program, the Financial Abuse Specialist Team and the County of Ventura for sponsoring this important event.

Well over 100 years ago, the poet Robert Browning envisioned that the final years of life should and could be the best years – the golden years. I look forward to working with each of you to make that vision a reality. Thank you.