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In the D.C. area and across the U.S., scams against senior citizens are on the rise

By Dan Morse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 7, 2010; A01

Murders and violent crimes are down around the Washington region and the country, but one kind of crime is rising steadily: scams against the elderly.

Senior citizens are reticent victims who avoid telling family members for fear of going to nursing homes, or don't even report swindles for fear of having to testify in court.

"There's just a low chance of getting caught and a high chance of getting into a lot of money," said Kathleen Quinn, executive director of the National Adult Protective Services Association.

Virginia's Adult Protective Services workers reported 756 cases of financial exploitation in the fiscal year that ended in June 2009, reflecting a steady rise since 2001, when there were 373.

In wealthy Montgomery County, 73 cases of financial exploitation were referred to the county's Adult Protective Services in fiscal 2009, compared with 47 in 2005 and 33 in 2000.

"These referrals represent the tip of the iceberg," said Bonnie Klem, chief of Montgomery's Adult Protective Services investigations. "Many more cases go unreported."

Senior citizens lose at least $2.6 billion a year to thieves, many of whom are in their own families, according to a study last year by the MetLife Mature Market Institute. And that estimate is conservative, MetLife says, given the schemes left unreported.

As the nation ages, the number of targets increases. By 2030, the United States will be home to 34 million people older than 75.

Officials in the District said the number of financial exploitations against older people has not increased, but more seniors are falling prey to offshore lottery-winning scams.

"There's absolutely more scamming going on," said Gail Nardi, head of adult services for Virginia's Department of Social Services. "It's outrageous to the point you say, 'Nah, that couldn't have happened.' But I see it every day."

She didn't have to look too far last month. A caregiver and a social worker at the Grayson County (Va.) Department of Social Services were charged with taking more than $24,000 from the bank account of an 89-year-old client who had gone to the agency for care and companionship.

Some cases get even bigger headlines.

After a five-month trial last year, the son of New York philanthropist and socialite Brooke Astor was convicted of stealing more than $1 million while she had Alzheimer's disease. In Montgomery, an ex-con was convicted this year of befriending an 84-year-old widow, persuading her to marry him in the front seat of his car and raiding her bank account of nearly $131,000.

Less known but more common are victims such as Ted and Eleanor Beattie, 96 and 92, who live in a split-level red-brick house on a leafy street in Silver Spring.

Suspicious payments

Ted Beattie grew up outside Oxford, England, sold British Rail tickets as a teenager and joined the Royal Navy. During World War II, he served as a payroll specialist aboard the HMS Warspite, surviving heavy battles off the coast of Europe.

The experience landed him a bookkeeping job at the British Embassy in Washington. He met Eleanor, a stenographer for the War Department, at a dance. They married in 1947 and raised four children in a three-bedroom house. At 83, Ted Beattie retired from the embassy.

By his 90s, he had received a diagnosis of dementia and agreed to assign financial power of attorney to one of his four children, Chris. Ted Beattie continued reading weekly issues of the Economist, trimming his yard with an electric mower, tending to a vegetable garden and insisting that the only place he and Eleanor would ever move was to the Catholic cemetery down the street.

Chris Beattie knew his father enjoyed paying his own bills and dealing with his own finances. He was hesitant to interfere. But last summer, he asked his father's bank for a printout of his parents' checking account.

What he saw -- three checks, for $1,550, $1,500 and $2,000, sprinkled among smaller and more specific payments to utilities -- horrified him.

His parents had hired two people who called themselves handymen. One had arrived unannounced, propped a ladder against their house, climbed up on the roof and told the Beatties they needed work done. Chris Beattie could find only one receipt, scrawled on a torn sheet of paper.

"Calk everything on roof w/new shingles around chimney," part of it read.

Piecing together the story with his parents, Chris Beattie learned his father had paid $1,550 for the purported roof work and $1,500 when the man returned and said he needed more money for the same job. Chris Beattie saw no evidence that anything had been done to the roof and took his father to the police department.

The scam happens in suburbs across the country. "They'll case the neighborhood," said John Creel, who investigated the Beatties' case for Montgomery County's Office of Consumer Protection. "They'll look for senior citizens, and they'll do what they can to steal money from them by offering to pave driveways, fix roofs, trim trees, whatever. Chances are, you're not getting your money's worth, or it's a total scam."

Tightening oversight

As the scams become better known, authorities are trying to help. Robert Roush, a geriatrics professor at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, helped launch a program that encourages physicians to look out for financial abuse among their elderly patients. Doctors receive a pocket guide with recommended questions to ask, including: Who manages your money day-to-day? How is that going? Do you have a will? Has anyone asked you to change it?

The doctors are asked to report suspected cases of swindling to local agencies.

Many of those agencies want banks to play a more active role and require bank employees who review accounts or tellers to report suspicious behavior, such as an older customer showing up with a new friend to transfer funds.

"That's the best way for us to find out what's going on," said Karen Hannigan, supervisor of adult protective services in Arlington County.

At least 17 states and the District require banks to do such reporting, according to the American Bankers Association. Banks in Virginia and Maryland do not and say that voluntary reporting is more practical.

Prior convictions

John Howard, 27, didn't tell the Beatties of his past when he went to their home with his ladder.

He'd been convicted in Virginia of marijuana distribution and passing bad checks and had run afoul of a law that forbids working as a contractor without a license or certificate.

By 2004, he was venturing into Montgomery County to work on homes. A co-worker came under suspicion for stealing blank checks from the bedroom of a 78-year-old Bethesda woman, who at the time was caring for her husband, who had Alzheimer's disease. Howard was charged with passing $7,650 worth of forged checks from the account, court records say.

"The defendant and his buddy, his co-conspirator, seek out elderly women," prosecutor Ryan Wechsler said in court. "He preyed on her age. He preyed on the fact that she was basically living alone and making these decisions for herself."

Howard was convicted of theft and other counts. At sentencing, he said his days of addiction to pain pills were behind him.

"I really have turned my life around," he told Circuit Court Judge Eric Johnson.

Johnson told him he was still young enough to do so and sentenced him to a week in jail: "Do your seven days. Go back to Culpeper. Don't do anything like this anymore."

Howard was indicted Jan. 21 on eight counts in the Beattie case, including financial exploitation of a vulnerable adult and acting as a contractor without a license.

Howard could not be reached to comment through phone numbers listed in court records. He did not show up for two recent court matters in the case, and court records indicate that he has not retained a lawyer.

Back at his home, Ted Beattie vows to stay put with Eleanor, even as he knows his memory is fading.

"It's not that good," he said. "That's the truth. It sort of flashes. I can remember a lot of things for years back, even my childhood, and sometimes I can't even remember what happened yesterday."

But he said he is willing to testify.

"I've always trusted people for their honesty," he said. "All he wanted to do was extract money."

Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

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