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How to Deal With Caregiver Theft

By , Caring.com senior editor
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Why identity thieves target older adults, and how to fight back

Today, people over age 50 control 70 percent of our nation's wealth. This sets older adults up for a variety of theft schemes and scams, not because they're older and weaker, but simply because they have the money, and thieves know it.

Unfortunately, well over two-thirds of the financial crimes committed against older adults are perpetrated by someone the victim has a relationship with -- a family member or paid or unpaid caregiver. This, combined with shame and embarrassment, leads to a significant underreporting of these crimes, says Kim Connors, deputy district attorney in Santa Clara County, California, who prosecutes financial crimes against older adults.

"People are often hesitant to report these crimes to law enforcement because they know the person doing it," Connors says, "and they often really care about this person, and have a hard time separating the person they care about from the person who would commit a crime against them." While it may seem tempting to deal with a matter privately, or through the civil courts, the best way to handle any suspected theft or fraud is to make a report to the local police department, Connors says.

The first step: reporting a theft.This can be a daunting prospect for older adults, but many local police departments and county prosecutors have special units specifically established to handle crimes committed against them. In addition, insurance companies won't investigate a theft claim unless the victim has made a police report. So the first step, as hard as it may be, is to call the local police department nonemergency line and ask that an officer be sent out to take a report. These officers are often willing to come to the person's home, so the older adult can tell her story in familiar surroundings. Another option is to call the county Adult Protective Services department. In many counties, this is part of the county Health Department. The department has social workers and other professionals adept at handling these matters, and they can help get the process started.

Dealing with shame over being victimized. The most difficult hurdle in reporting theft against an older adult is the victim's sense of personal shame and embarrassment over her own perceived failings. "People over 65 tend to be very responsible," says Connors. "Often, instead of reporting a crime, they'll sit down and think, 'What did I do wrong that I shouldn't let happen again?' They're embarrassed and take responsibility for the loss, and they see it as their own mistake. They need someone to tell them it's OK, that this isn't their fault."

Others may feel too much time has passed to report the crime. But in most states, authorities can still successfully prosecute crimes, especially financial ones where there's a paper trail, years after they're committed. In California, for example, authorities can prosecute crimes up to four years after an older adult discovers she's been victimized.

The next step: a detective gets involved. After a police officer takes an initial report, he gives that information to a detective, who will do the followup work. This often entails gathering the paperwork that will show a crime has been committed. If the victim knows who committed the theft, she'll likely be shown a photo lineup of suspects and be asked the pick the person who committed the crime. Again, in most cases, much of this can be done without going into the local police department. Investigations can be short, covering just a few days, or they can take months, depending on the crime and the resources of your local agency.

Once the detective has finished his work and there's enough evidence to prosecute, the matter is turned over to the county district attorney's office. Again, most counties have special units to prosecute crimes against older adults.