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.
When an older adult has to go to court after her identity has been stolen
The most daunting aspect for many victims is the prospect of having to tell their story in court. But Connors says that while this indeed can be scary, it can also be an empowering experience. "They get to come into a safe environment where they're believed."
In nearly all cases -- 90 to 95 percent -- the victim can avoid going to court altogether, as these cases end in a guilty plea. Very few criminal cases actually go to a jury trial. If your friend or relative's is the rare case that does go to trial, she'll have to testify about her loss in court, and about whom she believes committed the crime. This is the only time an older victim will have to appear to court.
Connors says many older adults are worried that they'll forget dates and details and become flustered while testifying. Most prosecutors will lead the victim through the process beforehand, so they know what to expect. Additionally, the victim can read her earlier statement to police and refresh her memory about details that may have later become confused.
Victims, of course, can attend other hearings, and if the person charged with the crime pleads guilty or is found guilty, the victim may be asked if she wants to participate in the sentencing phase. Often, she will have already been contacted by the county probation department, which draws up a report about the crime and its impact on the victim, and then makes sentencing recommendations to the court. At the time of sentencing, the victim can attend the court hearing and tell the court how the crime affected her. Many older victims choose to read a letter they had written to the court or have the prosecutor read the letter for them.
Getting a victim's money back after her identity is stolen
Many victims believe that reporting the crime means the local authorities will be able to get all their money or assets returned to them. Although this is possible in some cases, it often is not, nor is it the job of local police or county prosecutors to "undo" the crime committed against the older adult. There are agencies, however, that will assist you and the person you're caring for in doing this. They'll have names such as Senior Adult Legal Assistance. Adult Protective Services can also aid in this process. If this fails, contact your county Legal Aid Society for help.
In many cases, the perpetrator will have already spent the stolen money, making it impossible to return it to the victim. But some simple scams can be more easily reversed. For instance, one way scam artists take control of an older adult's car is to go to the local Division of Motor Vehicles and claim a family member died and gave them the car, but no one can find the title. The unsuspecting clerk then issues a new title in the thief's name. In this instance, the problem can be corrected by a court order mandating that the department reissue the title in the original owner's name.
Likewise, if funds are stolen via credit card or through forged checks, often a bank or credit card agency will refund the money. This only applies to cases of identity theft, however, not to scams. If an older adult falls prey to such a scheme, call her bank as soon as you've made a police report to find out the bank's policy on such fraud.
Older adults can sometimes be compensated if they miss work, need psychological counseling, or have medical expenses related to the crime committed against them. In California, for example, these expenses can be reimbursed through a special victims' compensation fund. Ask your local county prosecutor if this is available where you live.
Elder fraud remains an underreported crime, Connors says. "It still isn't recognized as much as it should be. We need people to report these crimes, and we need people to talk about it among their friends so they can avoid the same difficulties." One of the most valuable aspects in reporting a crime, Connors says, is that it helps to prevent another older adult from falling victim to the same scam, or even the same perpetrator.