This is the second in a three-day series on elder abuse, a growing concern as our population ages. In this series, we tell the stories of victims of emotional abuse, reveal disturbing data on how many seniors are affected, and detail the state’s efforts to combat abuse. We detail cases of abuse and the challenges of prosecuting them. We also examine financial exploitation of seniors and how to identify it.
Part 1: Physical abuse |Part 2: Financial abuse |Part 3: The strain on caregivers
Rev. Kendrick Doe was blindsided when a voice on the phone said his grandson was being held in a California jail.
The caller, who identified himself as a San Diego police officer, told the 78-year-old grandfather that his grandson was arrested when detectives found a gun in his car that had been used in homicide. He was instructed to send $43,000 to secure his release on bail. Doe mailed the cash only to discover the call was a hoax.
While thousands of seniors suffer injuries at the hands of family and other caregivers, many more are the victims of financial fraud.
Doe, a retired social worker and pastor called Haverhill police about the scam and was instrumental in bringing the thief to justice. Police coaxed him to talk to the suspect with hopes of making an arrest.
Authorities said the scammer, later identified as Sami Saloumi, a 32-year-old Canadian citizen, was part of an international crime ring that defrauds elders.
After Saloumi received the initial cash, police said the suspect requested an additional $150,000 from Doe, and if not, his grandson would be sent to Mexico for trial.
Doe told Saloumi he managed to secure $62,350 from an investment and was working on getting the rest. Police said Saloumi told the victim to send the cash to an address in Laguna Hills, a city in Orange County, where police made the arrest.
He was found guilty in Salem District Court of conspiracy and receiving stolen property and sentenced to two years in the Middleton House of Correction.
In his victim impact statement to the court, Doe said after the payment, his savings account was reduced to just $373.
Financial scams are often built on trust
Elder victims of financial exploitation have lost homes, pensions, life savings, had utilities shut off, and suffered other financial hardships.
In another case, Kathryn Christopher, former home care coordinator for the Belmont Council of Aging, was found guilty of theft from an elderly woman with Alzheimer’s. She was sentenced to five years probation and ordered not to work with or care for anyone over 65.
Prosecutors alleged the fraud began in 2003 when Dorothy Gough, 85, sought help from the Council on Aging. While Christopher was to establish services for the victim, she began taking care of Gough herself, a violation of Council of Aging policy.
Evidence presented at trial showed Christopher convinced Gough to change her will and name Christopher as the main beneficiary. She later had the victim sign a home equity line of credit. The cash was supposed to be used to open a joint banking account to care for Gough, but Christopher pocketed the money, prosecutors said.
“This was a calculated case of fraud,” said Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan, whose office prosecuted the case. “Kathryn Christopher was in a position of trust and she profited from that role by swindling a senior who was experiencing medical issues. She exploited someone who was vulnerable, without family nearby and who was having significant memory issues.”
John Chapman, Undersecretary for the state Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation said elders are a common target for scams and abuse and may be unaware it’s occurring.
All Beverly resident Gloria Lilja wanted was to add a second floor to her ranch-style home so her daughter and son-in-law could live upstairs.
But after two years, the 83-year-old retired nurse lost nearly $200,000, and her home is in shambles.
Earlier this year, Jaime Ford, 49, who posed as a licensed building contractor, was sentenced to two years in state prison after pleading guilty to larceny, forgery, and being a common and notorious thief, according to the Essex County District Attorney’s Office.
Ford, of Middleton, avoided scrutiny by convincing homeowners, including Lilja, to use home equity lines of credit rather than construction loans which require the bank to review building permits and periodically inspect the work before dispensing the cash.
When Lilja and other victims inquired why work on their projects had slowed or ceased, the defendant lied, telling them his wife had cancer, was going into hospice, and had died, the DA said. The money he received from his victims was used to purchase Cadillacs, pay rent on expensive homes and fund lavish gambling trips to the Hard Rock Casino in Florida, according to court documents.
In a victim impact statement, Lilja’s daughter, Kaarin Robinson, told the court her mother had been injured in a fall and was confined to a wheelchair when the family decided on the addition so the family could live together in the Chipman Road home.
But after gutting the house, Ford told the family he uncovered asbestos and needed money for remediation. Lilja gave him more money only to discover the toxic materials were placed into a dumpster, a violation of state regulations. Later, he told Lilja the sills were rotted and would cost $100,000 to be replaced. “He told us we were like family and we believed him,” Robinson read in court.
A growing problem
The number of elders facing abuse in Massachusetts is rising. Confirmed cases increased by 38 percent to 9,799 last year, according to the state Executive Office of Elder Affairs.
Nationwide, 500,000 seniors lose up to $36 billion a year to elder financial abuse, according to Consumer Union, publisher of Consumer Reports.
“As many as 5,000 confirmed allegations in the state are financial exploitation of elders,” said Alec Graham, director of the Protective Service Program at the state’s Executive Office of Elder Affairs. “There are scams that originate in another state or country, and there are others caused by someone in their community or a family member trying to take advantage of them.”
The National Center on Elder Abuse, a nonprofit whose mission is to prevent mistreatment of seniors, said a review of cases found assailants tend to be men with a history of substance abuse, have mental or physical health ailments, are known to police, and are unemployed or have financial problems.
Two years ago, former Haverhill City Councilor Robert Scatamacchia and funeral home operator was sentenced to one year in prison for stealing $73,000 from elder customers who pre-paid for funeral arrangements, according to the Essex County District Attorney’s Office.
Scatamacchia’s funeral home went out of business. But when customers tried to get their money transfered to other funeral homes, as regulations permit, their requests were ignored. Prosecutors said the money was never placed in trust as required by law and instead Scatamacchia pocketed the cash.
But there are many other ways elders are taken advantage of in confidence games.
National Adult Protective Services Association reports the most popular scams include a caller who says you’ve won a sweepstakes, just send $2,500 to cover your taxes; home repair cons when the person says they can replace your roof or pave your driveway cheaply; your grandson is in jail and requests money be sent immediately; falsely soliciting funds for good causes, such as following a disaster; someone comes to your door pretending to be from a utility company while an accomplice steals valuables.
The nonprofit reminds seniors that lottery agents, police and the Internal Revenue Service will never call and demand cash. They urge people to not give out any information to strangers such as a social security and credit card numbers.
“Age-old safety precautions still apply in these modern times,” said Ryan. “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is…be skeptical if you receive a phone call or letter claiming you will get money for providing a social security number or personal information. Never give personal information to strangers, and do not allow people into your home even if they say they have an emergency. If you think you have been a victim of a scam, report the crime to police.”
Experts say only a fraction of cases ever get reported.
“Elders consider it a behind closed doors issue, there is lots of shame and embarrassment,” said Carolyn Lewis, a social worker at North Shore Elder Services. “Often it’s done by the adult children and seniors do not want to call the police on their kids.”
Cheryl Charles contributed to this report. She can be reached at [email protected].