HomeCommunityCarmel’s elderly vulnerable to exploitation and financial abuse

Carmel’s elderly vulnerable to exploitation and financial abuse

Published April 3, 2024

BY ZANA BALABAN

Older people are often perceived by the public to be wealthier because they have had more time to build wealth. According to Sergeant Mike Bruno, who has been with the Carmel Police Department for over a decade, this is a reason Carmel’s elderly community can become a target for exploitation and financial abuse. The United States Department of Justice defines elder exploitation as the illegal or improper use of an older person’s estate and elder financial abuse as the misappropriation of financial resources or abusive use of financial control. 

Especially in an area as affluent as Carmel, many older residents face these challenges.

“[Financial abuse and exploitation] is easier to get away with,” says Carmel Police Department Officer E. Higgings. “The transaction numbers are not something we can see.”

Marguerite Hientzleman and her best friend of 60 years (from left) pictured in the memory care room which her friend will not be able to leave for the rest of her life. (photo by ZANA BALABAN)

Aging and Adult Services is a social service government department in Monterey County that serves as the umbrella for programs such as Adult Protective Services, a round-the-clock state-wide operation complementing the police force and FBI by investigating elder abuse reports and providing resource connections to the abused. This month, for instance, a 60-year-old with a seemingly healthy cognition was called and told he had won $28 million but needed to buy additional scratchers to collect the lottery winnings, and APS reported to his home.

“He had four cell phones,” says Emily Nicholl, program manager of Monterey County AAS and a social worker for 30 years. “While the APS investigator was there, he got another call from one of the scammers. With more and more easy access to the internet, there are so many more opportunities for elders to be exploited.”

The number of financial elder abuse cases reported to APS has nearly doubled since 2017. A main contributor to these statistics is the recently developed use of Artificial Intelligence to impersonate family, police, doctors and other trusted members of the community. 

Merlina Perez, a Carmel PD officer who worked for the Monterey County Sheriff’s Office for seven years, recalls multiple offenders using AI to impersonate the Sheriff’s Office and demand money from an older victim, claiming a search warrant was in place. Bruno says AI is especially dangerous because of how influential and realistic it is, especially to older people who are not generally as educated on the dangers of new technology.

Carmel PD says electronically conducted elder abuse cases are extremely difficult to trace and solve. One way officers obtain information is from local bank reports.

“We’re very lucky to have a small community where the banks around here do a good job establishing relationships with their clients,” Bruno says. “If a banker thinks that a transaction is suspicious, they’ll report it to APS.” 

Jennifer Hollingsworth was in banking for nearly 30 years and made calls to APS countless times during her time managing at Wells Fargo Bank. She witnessed a substantial amount of fraud targeted at the elderly community because of their lack of education and defense against the issue.

One man in his 70s was a long-time customer of the Wells Fargo off Highway 68 and was cognitively impaired when he began telling Hollingsworth he needed to wire increments of $3,000 to his “friends overseas” whom he had met over the phone.

While the member base of the Carmel Foundation is the targeted population for financial abuse, seniors can find company and educational classes on exploitation at the Carmel Foundation , which supports the financially unstable elderly community. (courtesy of THE CARMEL FOUNDATION)

“From a legal standpoint, we can’t stop people,” Hollingsworth explains. “All I can do is teach my bankers to ask a lot of questions. He started [wiring money] so much that, for his own good, I got permission to shut down the accounts. We cared about him and couldn’t stand idly by and watch him send his life savings to criminals.”

In March 2023, Hollingsworth assumed the position of Director of Development at the Carmel Foundation, a senior citizen center with over 2,600 members providing 60 low-income housing units, $6 entrees and over 60 campus classes every week for seniors to engage their minds and socialize. 

The foundation proactively hosts classes with community partners such as Chase and Wells Fargo, who educate members on fraud and scam prevention. Hollingsworth emphasizes that the member base of the Carmel Foundation is a targeted sector of the community for financial abuse. Recently, she reported a daughter who was taking advantage of her mother’s health and stealing money. This abuse likely would not have been discovered without the mother’s involvement at the foundation.

One senior, who has since passed away, utilized the affordable food and coffee at the foundation when he was living out of a van, alone. A couple living on Junipero walks down the street to get warm, have a meal and connect. Otherwise, according to CEO and President Holly Zoller, they would all be alone.

The Carmel Foundation especially supports the financially unstable older population of Monterey County, many of whom rely completely on their Social Security checks, as low as $1,000 a month for some members, for income. Perez notes Social Security scams are another aspect of elder abuse. A single stolen check would mean great financial hardship. To perform the fraud, the culprit can steal mail, reroute the checks, impersonate the victim or create a false ID to deposit those checks.

In a slightly different domain is exploitation from the inside, chiefly by caregivers and family members. Bruno recalls a case in which an older patient struggling with cognitive impairment and memory loss was taken advantage of by her caregiver.

“This person had access to her sensitive financial information and so was taking her checks and forging the name, and using her debit card to withdraw money,” Bruno explains. “They stole in excess of $50,000 over a few-year period. The crime and discrepancies weren’t discovered until the lady passed away and lawyers and family members started going through the person’s finances.”

Additionally, family members with power of attorney are capable of financial abuse when they do not act in the best interests of the elder. But family dynamics create a more complicated case.

“[Family members with power of attorney] have power and influence, and the elder may not even realize their property and assets are being misused or actually taken from them,” explains Victoria Miranda, a civil attorney with Legal Services for Seniors, a nonprofit firm offering pro bono legal assistance to Monterey County seniors.

Hollingsworth witnessed numerous sons and daughters forcing elderly parents to withdraw large sums of money. One case in which Nicholls and APS received several referrals was a family with five grown children who each wanted the mother’s estate to themselves. They all called APS on separate occasions, attempting to prove the other siblings should not have power of attorney.

Similarly, Marguerite Hientzleman’s long-standing friendship with an 81-year-old resident took a turn when, in early March, her best friend was transported to the locked-off memory care wing of a local assisted living home. Hientzleman reports that her friend’s phone, her sole source of communication to the outside world, was taken by the home due to her repeatedly calling 911. Her cousin from Los Angeles with power of attorney orchestrated the move and is now selling the resident’s property.

“She didn’t think she was going to destroy her life,” says Hientzleman, mentioning that the cousin rarely visited. “She’s her cousin and she trusted her.”

More information about elder abuse is available at www.cdss.ca.gov/adult-protective-services. To report abuse, call Adult Protective Services at 1-833-401-0832.

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