Contra Costa Times
Elder financial abuse has become a hidden national epidemic
By Tammerlin Drummond: Times Columnist
Article Launched: 12/09/2007 04:28:47 PM PST
AN EX–CONVICT who works at an Antioch car wash "befriends" an 82–year–old customer with dementia. Over time, he not only persuades the World War II veteran to give him more than $300,000 in cash and annuities, but he also gets the elderly man to change his will making him sole beneficiary.
An East Palo Alto woman takes out a $200,000 loan on her 92–year–old grandmother’s house without her knowledge. She leaves the wheelchair–bound senior alone in a house full of rats while she goes on a $75,000 shopping spree — buying herself a champagne–colored Hummer.
After her arrest, she gets a mortgage broker to bring her loan documents in jail so she can take out another $400,000 loan on her grandmother’s house.
Members of a nomadic crime family stage a string of car accidents with a 96–year–old Alameda woman. They scare her into thinking she’ll lose her license if she doesn’t pay them for the bogus damage to their car. They’re able to keep playing the same cruel hoax over and over because she has dementia and forgets each incident moments after it happens. They swindle her out of $100,000.
All across California, shameless predators are robbing vulnerable seniors of their hard–earned nest eggs. Former Attorney General Bill Lockyer called elder financial abuse "the fastest–growing crime in the country."
It may not leave bruises or broken bones in its wake, but when an elderly person is suddenly deprived of the safety net that it took a lifetime to weave — with no chance of ever making the money back — it takes a terrible psychological toll.
In fact, it’s common for seniors to die within weeks of making the traumatic discovery that someone whom they trusted has robbed them.
Countless lives have been ruined. Huge sums lost. And, with 75 million baby boomers across the nation hurtling toward senior citizenship, it’s going to get a lot worse. We believe current laws are inadequate for dealing with the situation.
When a predator steals all of an elderly person’s resources, it’s the state that must step in and provide for him or her.
That means we taxpayers get saddled with the tremendous cost of caring for the tsunami of destitute elderly people.
Elder financial abuse is a national disgrace.
Yet where is the public outrage? Why hasn’t the Congress passed a single piece of comprehensive legislation to protect vulnerable seniors? Why have lawmakers in Sacramento done so little to address this statewide contagion? Have we become so obsessed with youth that we don’t care that our elderly parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles are being ruthlessly exploited? And that we pretend we aren’t aware of their suffering?
"When the guy threw the poodle out on the freeway my mother in New York called me to ask if I’d heard about it," says Shadia Merukeb, a consultant for the Alameda County District Attorney who works with elder abuse victims. "But no one hears about elder abuse."
She’s right. It’s only the most sensational cases that make news, or those involving huge sums of money.
When the grandson of Brooke Astor accused his father in court papers of stealing millions of dollars from the 105–year–old philanthropist and society maven, it made international headlines.
That’s because Astor, who died in August, was a celebrity.
But, for the most part, elder financial abuse occurs in obscurity and it gets scant attention.
It is not even a blip on the radar. No one has made it a priority. Not the authorities. Not the courts. Not the Legislature. Not the Congress. Not the press.
We believe that it’s high time someone did.
"Theft of Elder Nation" is an editorial series based on months of interviews and reviews of public records.
Our aim is to help drag the hidden national epidemic of elder financial abuse out of the closet.
By focusing the spotlight on the rampant financial exploitation of our seniors, we hope this newspaper can help spur a meaningful public dialogue that will lead to reforms to protect our seniors from the wolves at the door.
Our intention also is to provide readers with valuable information that will help them to protect themselves and their loved ones from elder predators.
What exactly is elder financial abuse?
Generally speaking, it is the illegal taking of money or property from an adult 65 or older without that person’s freely given consent — and using that property for one’s own personal gain.
In the past decade, elder financial abuse has quietly become a national disease. According to the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging, 2 million seniors are victims of financial crimes every year.
Those are just the people who we know about. Many seniors never report the abuse — either because they’re too scared or too ashamed to come forward. That’s especially true when the bad guy is a family member or someone else whom they depend upon for care.
The National Center on Elder Abuse estimates that for every case that gets reported to authorities, at least three don’t.
For a variety of reasons, very few elder predators actually get prosecuted.
In a criminal case, prosecutors have to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
That is exceedingly difficult in elder financial abuse prosecutions.
Victims typically don’t make good witnesses. They have trouble remembering. They’re easily confused. They break down under ruthless questioning from relentless defense attorneys. They lie to protect their abusers.
They often die.
Elder financial prosecutions also take huge amounts of manpower to establish a paper trail between the victim and the abuser.
Even when prosecutors do win a conviction, the worst thing that usually happens is a judge will order the elder abuser to pay the money back.
Sometimes, he may get county jail time. But state prison tends to be the exception rather than the rule.
Ordering an elder abuser to pay back the money he stole is like no punishment at all.
By then, it’s already been squandered at the casino or spent on $55,000 Hummers or Hawaiian cruises.
Most of what was stolen never gets repaid.
That’s why it’s so important to prevent the abuse before it happens and to mete out serious jail time after it does.
When it comes to financial fraud against elderly people, California is ground zero.
The reason is quite simple: More people 65 and older live in our state than anywhere else in the country: 4 million and counting.
People 85 and older are the fastest–growing segment of the elderly population.
With tens of millions of baby boomers fast approaching retirement age, law enforcement authorities are predicting an explosion in financial crimes against the elderly.
Adult Protective Services, the main government agency that investigates elder financial abuse, has seen a dramatic increase in complaints.
Frustrated APS investigators say they’re so swamped, they’re often unable to take action until it’s too late.
Yet when we talk about the challenges that our nation faces as the population grows rapidly older, we dwell on future concerns. We worry that Social Security will run out. That the health care system will collapse under the weight of so many sick old people. What we don’t consider are the devastating effects of elder financial abuse and its impact on elderly people and their families in the here and now.
Elder financial abuse is where domestic violence was 20 years ago. Which means that we, as a society, are pretty much in denial.
The police and the courts (there are some notable exceptions) tend to treat financial crimes against the elderly as civil matters: misunderstandings, or business arrangements gone sour, rather than crimes. Even when elder financial abuse cases do land in the judicial system, they’re placed on the bottom of the totem pole. They often fall through the cracks.
The abuse usually happens behind closed doors. Victims are invisible. What’s not happening in front of our faces is easy for us to ignore. And, for the most part, we do.
Eventually, however, sheer demographics will make it impossible to go on ignoring what is happening.
People are living longer. Millions of today’s baby boomers will develop Alzheimer’s and other debilitating conditions that make them easy prey.
If we as a society don’t take action, there will be many, many more victims in the future.
"It’s a Pandora’s Box," says Chayo Reyes, a retired Los Angeles police detective who teachers elder abuse prevention for the U.S. Justice Department. "We know what’s in the box."
There are more scammers out there intent on prying seniors from their hard–earned money than there are ice cream flavors.
Many of these parasites are the very people you’d expect to be looking out for vulnerable old people.— their own family members.
We have become a nation of adult children and grandchildren with a warped sense of entitlement.
In an age when instant gratification rules, many people can’t be bothered to wait for a death before claiming their inheritance. It’s going to be theirs anyway so why should they have to postpone their grand plans for the good life?
Then, there are the countless opportunistic parasites who aren’t relatives: Thieving caretakers, dishonest lawyers, accountants, mortgage brokers, cons selling worthless securities and real estate, bogus "senior investment planners," fake nurses, shady contractors, trusts mills, Canadian lotteries and "Sweetheart" swindlers are but a few of the predators operating. The list is endless.
"I knew it was a problem," says Virginia George, director of the Elder Law Clinic at John F. Kennedy University in Pleasant Hill, which gives free legal advice to elder abuse victims. "But I had no idea how wide and how deep it was."
Why do criminals target seniors? Because that’s where the money is. People 50 and older control 70 percent of the nation’s wealth. That’s about $70 trillion.
Most of this bounty is due to a meteoric rise in real estate prices. That’s especially true in once–hot markets such as the Bay Area.
Someone who bought an executive house in Contra Costa County for $60,000 decades ago is sitting on more than $1 million in equity. The market has cooled, but homeowners still have access to the equity unless they’ve maxed out their credit.
Many elderly people are paper rich and cash poor. They’re desperate for extra money to help supplement their fixed incomes. They’re anxious to tap the equity in their homes to help relieve the financial pressure of mounting medical bills, home improvements and other costs.
Sleazy operators see a gold mine. They’ve devised all kinds of schemes to steal equity. Predatory loans, foreclosure rescue scams; shady contracting deals where seniors take out thousands of dollars for home repairs that never get completed; or even bad reverse mortgages.
Crooked mortgage brokers use high pressure tactics to get elderly people to take out home equity loans that there’s no way they can afford to pay back. It’s quite common for the unscrupulous to convince seniors to lie about their income in order to qualify.
Nothing surprises Bill Denny, who heads the real estate fraud division for the Alameda County District Attorney.
"I’ve seen a 92–year–old man listed as an auto mechanic, and an elderly blind woman as an interior decorator," Denny says.
When a senior is not able to repay the loan and loses his home, the shady broker has long since collected his fee and moved on to his next victim.
The fact is, it’s a whole lot easier to hold an old person up for his home than it is to rob a bank.
A bank robber might get $5,000, if he’s lucky. He might also get shot.
"But you go into an old person’s living room, they’ll serve you coffee, you hand them their pen and they’ll sign over $200,000 to you," says Pleasanton Attorney Alan Ramos who represents elder financial abuse victims.
A frail senior battling cancer or dementia is hardly in a position to fend off an assault on his finances. If he’s got Alzheimer’s, he’s probably too out of it to even realize what’s going on.
Walter Condon had just had surgery for colon cancer. His wife had suffered a massive stroke and was in a nursing home.
The 75–year–old Pacifica attorney started spending a lot of time with a Concord man named Daniel Villasenor who he had met through a legal client.
Before long, Condon had given the 42–year–old Villasenor permission to cash his $3,000–a–month pension check. He started loaning a man he hardly knew thousands of dollars. He even gave him power of attorney over his financial affairs, which allowed Villasenor unlimited access to Condon’s assets.
Condon had been mentally confused since his surgery. His son Marc Condon found out that he’d started loaning Villasenor money. He suspected that the younger man was taking advantage of his father’s declining mental state and frail health.
But Walter Condon wouldn’t listen to his son. In fact, Walter Condon made Villasenor his caretaker.
He moved 50 minutes away to Pittsburg to open a bankruptcy practice with Villasenor.
Then, Walter Condon disappeared.
Several months later, Marc Condon learned that his parents’ house had been transferred into Villasenor’s name.
He suspected foul play and went to the police. Concord police officers located Villasenor at his home. They arranged for him to bring Walter Condon to a neutral location later that evening so that the police could verify his well–being and Marc Condon could speak with his father.
The meeting took place at 10:40 p.m. on the side of Farm Bureau Road in Pittsburg.
Walter Condon was sitting in Villasenor’s car. His son asked him to come home with him. But Walter Condon refused. He said he couldn’t because he had to go to a doctor’s appointment the next day.
The police officers concluded that Walter Condon was lucid and was not being held against his will. They allowed him to leave with Villasenor.
A few days later, a California State Bar investigator named Michael Hummer contacted the Concord police. The bar was investigating Walter Condon for charging clients for bankruptcy services that he had not completed.
Several of the complainants had identified a man fitting Villasenor’s description as the person who claimed to be attorney Walter Condon.
Hummer had also contacted Marc Condon. He filed a missing person’s report with the police.
But now, all of a sudden, Villasenor and Walter Condon were nowhere to be found.
Detective Ken Carlson searched for the pair for more than a month, without success.
Then, on a December afternoon in 2000, Carlson got a tip. He knocked on the door of a dark apartment in Pittsburg.
Josephine McCray and her husband Vern answered the door. They told the detective they had no idea where Walter Condon lived. That they would have to ask Villasenor.
Suddenly, an elderly man in a diaper burst into the room. He was holding a colostomy bag in one hand.
"Vern? Is that someone looking for me?" he asked.
The police had found Walter Condon.
The elderly man was shocked to learn that his credit cards had been run up to $330,000. A bankruptcy petition had been filed in his name. His house was in foreclosure. And, his professional reputation was in tatters.
"I thought he was helping me out. I trusted him," the veteran of three foreign wars told the police of Villasenor. "But from what I’ve learned, I don’t know him very well at all."
After a three–year investigation, the Contra Costa County District Attorney charged Villasenor with grand theft and elder financial abuse.
He also was charged with grand theft for stealing money from people who’d hired Walter Condon to prepare their bankruptcy petitions. Some of them told a state bar investigator that Villasenor had led them to believe that he was Walter Condon.
But the district attorney would later drop the most serious elder financial abuse charges. Last year, a Contra Costa Superior Court Judge sentenced Villasenor to two years probation for defrauding Walter Condon’s legal clients.
They didn’t pursue the more serious allegations that Villasenor had held Walter Condon a virtual captive while he looted his assets.
A smug Villasenor told a Times reporter that he got such a good deal because prosecutors would have had a "hell of a case to prove."
We’ll never know whether that’s true. What we do know, however, is that Villasenor got very lucky.
The case was plagued by delays. It got transferred to several different detectives. The first prosecutor went out on maternity leave. By the time the District Attorney’s Office was prepared to present its case, Walter Condon had died.
That would have been a serious blow in and of itself. But then, the U.S. Supreme Court delivered the knock–out punch.
In Crawford v. Washington, the high court ruled that videotaped testimony is not admissible at trial because it violates a defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to confront his accusers.
Villasenor obviously couldn’t confront a dead man in court.
Unable to use the tape that would have allowed Walter Condon to testify from the grave, prosecutors decided not to pursue the elder abuse charges.
After Walter Condon’s death, his estate filed a civil lawsuit to get the title of his Pacifica house transferred out of Villasenor’s name back into the name of Iyoko Condon, Marc Condon’s mother. The action cost $35,000 in legal fees.
Marc Condon remains bitter over the outcome.
"People like Villasenor can’t be stopped," he said.
Besides illness, what often makes elderly people so vulnerable is loneliness.
Their spouses and their contemporaries have died. Their children and grandchildren don’t have time for them.
Their only company is the TV.
A widow might seek out the grocery store clerk who speaks whenever she goes shopping. Or develop a relationship with a nice man who has offered to fix the roof.
The problem is, these seemingly sympathetic strangers often mean them no good.
Nancy Leslie thought she’d made a good friend in Teresa Szymczak, a teller at her local U.S. Bank branch.
Szymczak would always wait on the 90–year–old Alameda woman. She helped Leslie balance her checkbook. Before long, she started spending time with the elderly woman outside of the bank.
Szymczak cooked Leslie meals and helped her get to doctor’s appointments.
She also helped herself to Leslie’s checking account.
An Alameda police investigation revealed that Szymczak had come up with a crude ruse to steal from Leslie.
The teller had her address put on Leslie’s bank statements. When they arrived, she altered them to hide the thousands of dollars that she was withdrawing from the older woman’s account. She then resealed the statements and mailed them to Leslie.
The teller got caught after a $4,620 check for Leslie’s move into a long–term care center bounced. She should have had more than enough money in her checking account to cover it.
Leslie’s nephew, who had a power of attorney over her affairs, called the police.
The teller was convicted of elder abuse and forgery last year and ordered to repay nearly $17,000 — despite her claims that the money that she took was a loan.
Like Leslie, many older people are desperate for companionship, which is why they also get sucked into telephone solicitations.
A Concord woman named Lori Swiech raked in nearly $200,000 over a two–year period by soliciting mostly elderly people on behalf of charitable organizations.
Swiech knew how to tug at the heartstrings. She said she was raising money for hungry tots. Battered women. Jobs for vets. A food bank.
She had the con down to a science. When authorities searched her home, they found hundreds of 3–by–5 index cards on her desk — each listing personal details about her victims.
Swiech used these cue cards to bond with her victims.
"She was incredibly charming over the phone," says Contra Costa Deputy District Attorney Ken McCormick.
Swiech would never use the mail, but she had her victims leave a check under their doormat. Her cohort Ken McElroy would pick it up.
Fortunately in this case, the amounts stolen from each person were relatively small. Most elderly people wrote checks for $100 or less. Occasionally for $1,000.
The scam was so lucrative because there were so many victims. Investigators suspect there were thousands going back as far as 1990.
Swiech and McElroy were sentenced to two years probation and ordered to pay back the money they stole to the charitable organizations they had claimed to be representing.
"People need to imagine the person on the other end of the phone wearing a black hood over their head," says Helen Carr, a Bay Area senior who teaches fellow seniors how to avoid falling victim to financial fraud. "We need to retrain ourselves."
California Penal Code 368 recognizes that crimes against elders are deserving of special attention — much like crimes against children.
According to the law, those convicted of elder abuse face harsher penalties.
A theft is legally considered elder financial abuse if the perpetrator had every reason to know that the victim was 65 or older and took their property – without their consent.
The problem is unscrupulous, stronger–willed people use all kinds of nefarious tactics — that aren’t illegal under current law — to manipulate elderly people into giving their consent for financial transactions.
Transactions that enable that thief to loot a senior’s assets.
It’s called using "undue influence."
Perpetrators isolate a senior so that he becomes totally dependent to the point of doing anything the predator tells him to.
Scare the senior into thinking that if he doesn’t sign the power of attorney turning over control of his assets, he’ll wind up in a nursing home.
It’s a form of brainwashing – not unlike what goes on in cults.
Yet undue influence isn’t against the law — even though elder predators are using it to get away with criminal conduct.
A California appellate court has suggested that undue influence is no more than persuasive salesmanship.
However, we believe that when someone brainwashes or intimidates an elderly person into turning over his life savings, that goes far beyond good salesmanship.
Let’s say a predator pressures a vulnerable elderly woman into signing over the deed to her house, knowing full well that she is incapable of understanding the implications of her actions. He then sells the house, leaving her homeless.
We believe that ought to be a crime.
If using undue influence to commit theft is not a crime, it’s time our lawmakers gave serious, thoughtful consideration to making it one.
Vulnerable elderly people need and deserve our protection.
Elder predators are everywhere. They know where to find their victims. They scout out neighborhoods, looking for well–tended yards and handicap access ramps. They hang out at bus stops and grocery store parking lots. Outside senior centers and retirement complexes.
They take advantage of the fact that people who grew up during the Depression tend to be more trusting. That they come from a time when a man’s word was his bond. When agreements were sealed with a handshake. That if someone tells them a loan is for $200,000, they don’t expect it to contain $50,000 in hidden fees.
If a friendly sounding woman calls on the telephone and says she’s with the government, they take her at her word. They believe that the personal information that she wants is for official government business.
They can’t imagine that criminals have purchased lists of elderly people from banks and are using the information that unwitting seniors divulge over the telephone to clean out their bank accounts. — all the while expressing sympathy for the recent loss of a spouse.
There are those fortunate souls who will remain healthy and reasonably self–sufficient. Those miracles who are still driving in their 90s.
But age works overtime on many seniors. Illnesses weaken their bodies. Dementia ravages their minds. Other mental disorders make elderly people hoard to hold onto what they already have, which makes them especially susceptible to con artists peddling "low–risk, high yield" schemes.
Other seniors go to the opposite extreme: they’re seized with fits of generosity that lead them to make unusually large gifts to people they hardly know.
These age–related infirmities make them easy targets for criminals and the criminally minded.
It will take a community effort to fight these heartless con artists.
We can start by beginning to keep a watchful eye out for our elderly neighbors and family members.
If we notice that the 92–year–old woman next door who used to sit out on her porch and greet the neighbors has suddenly become a recluse now that her adult granddaughter has moved in, we ought to pause a moment and ask ourselves why?
The welfare of our elderly residents is our collective responsibility.
The baby boomers have always prided themselves on doing everything better than previous generations.
That includes aging better. As we’re so fond of saying, "60 is the new 50."
The fact is, though, if your brain goes, it doesn’t matter how smart and successful you once were.
You, too, will lose your independence. You’ll have no choice but to rely on the kindness of family members, paid care–takers and others for your basic needs.
If for no other reason than selfish ones, we should all care about fighting elder financial abuse. Because one day, if we live long enough, it could very well happen to us.