How to help fight fraud against the elderly

Michelle Singletary
Columnist November 8, 2011

Scams against seniors have become so commonplace that all you think you can do is shake your head and grieve for the people who have lost their money.

But from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Thursday, a number of organizations have decided to do more than shake their heads. They have come together to open three telephone lines in a nationwide effort to prevent seniors from becoming victims of financial fraud. The Prevent Elder Financial Abuse Call-In program, manned by certified financial planners, heath-care professionals and adult protective services professionals, will be giving out advice and guidance on how to protect yourself and any senior you might know against fraud.

Michelle Singletary writes the nationally syndicated personal finance column, “The Color of Money.” View Archive

Such assistance might have helped the many seniors who were defrauded by Jeffrey Butler, a California man who was given a 90-year prison sentence last year after being convicted of bilking 124 elderly investors out of more than $11 million in a Ponzi scheme. Many of the victims lost their life savings. Sadly, some victims were so old or so ill that they didn’t live long enough to see Butler convicted.

Butler first met many of his victims while operating a company that offered to assist senior citizens in creating living wills, trusts and other estate planning structures, according to the Orange County District Attorney’s Office.

“I’m hoping that we will raise the level of understanding about how critical this problem is and how it will grow as the population ages,” said Don Blandin, president and chief executive of the Investor Protection Trust, which is sponsoring the call-in campaign. “We have to find ways to protect our seniors against investment swindles and financial abuse.”

A 2010 survey funded by Blandin’s organization found that 7.3 million older Americans — one in five of those over age 65 — had been ripped off. The survey also revealed that many adult children said they were concerned about their elderly parents’ ability to handle their finances.

The hotlines are intended to help not just seniors but also adult children of the elderly and others who know or work with the elderly. The organizations participating include the National Adult Protective Services Association, the Financial Planning Association, the Investor Protection Institute and the Baylor College of Medicine. Kiplinger’s Personal Finance is also a partner. The toll-free hotlines will address questions and offer advice in the following areas:

●If you have general finance questions, call 888-227-1776. You’ll be put in touch with an expert from the Financial Planning Association. In particular, the FPA professionals can help adult children figure out how to initiate a conversation with their parents about money. “We are coming up on Thanksgiving, and this is a perfect time to have this conversation,” Blandin said. On the flip said, the holiday season is also a time when authorities see an increase in financial exploitation, he said. Why? It’s when families, friends and neighbors get together, increasing the chance that some unscrupulous person will have access to the financial holdings of a senior parent, friend or relative.

●If you have medical questions, call 888-303-0430. Callers can get advice from health-care professionals about medical issues such as mild cognitive impairment, which can affect an older person’s ability to make wise and safe financial decisions. The condition may cause people to become confused or less risk-averse, increasing their vulnerability to exploitation. The health-care professionals can help identify the health-related red flags that make someone more vulnerable to financial abuse, and they will be able to suggest referrals for medical screening.

●If you have questions about financial abuse or about how to recognize that something might be amiss, call 888-303-3297. You will speak to an adult protective services professional. You can get information on what steps to take if you suspect that a loved one is being financially abused or exploited. For every case of financial abuse that is reported, four or five are not, because in many cases they involve family, Blandin said. “What 86-year-old mother wants to file a report on her son?”

Even before the telephone lines open, people have been calling for help, Blandin said. One call came from an elderly woman concerned that a young woman living with her had pushed the caller to give her control over her retirement money. The state securities regulator where the woman lives has gotten involved.

If you want more information about the call-in program, go to www.investorprotection.org.

This is one of the best preemptive strikes I’ve seen for this type of fraud, and I hope this one-day service will become a regular program.

Readers can write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071. Her e-mail address is singletarym@washpost.com. Questions are welcomed, but because of the volume of mail, personal responses may not be possible.

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