Protecting vulnerable adults
Amy Temby and Tracy Wisner are social workers with Waupaca County’s Adult Protective Services.
They respond to and investigate reports from the community regarding vulnerable and elderly adults.
In 2010, Temby and Wisner investigated 117 cases in Waupaca County.
About half the reports they investigate involve adults who, due to physical frailty or faltering cognitive skills, can no longer adequately care for themselves. They assess the risks and, depending on the situation, help by arranging for health care services, meals on wheels, home chore services or transportation.
Other complaints the social workers investigate include neglect, physical and emotional abuse, treatment without consent and sexual abuse.
The second most common complaint adult protective services investigates, both in the county and statewide, is financial exploitation. It accounts for 17 percent of all adult abuse cases in Wisconsin.
“Perhaps it’s due to the economy, but we’re seeing a rise in financial exploitation cases,” Temby said. “The alleged abusers are typically family members.”
Sons and daughters account for 42 percent of all abusers of elderly adults, while 13 percent of the abusers are strangers.
Many of the abusers have been granted power of attorney and control the victim’s finances.
“They’re relying on a relative or a neighbor to write their checks and pay their bills,” Temby said. “But their money is being misappropriated, and they could lose their homes because the bills are not being paid.”
Temby described how she often makes multiple visits because the victim is unwilling to admit that they are being exploited.
“They’re too embarrassed to tell their family or tell law enforcement,” Temby said, “They’re afraid that their family may not let them live on their own anymore.”
Madison attorney Maren Beerman is director of the Guardianship Support Center for the Coalition of Wisconsin Aging Groups. She points to opportunity as the reason so many abusers of adults are related to their victims.
“It’s easier to get a Social Security number off a bill in your grandma’s house than it is to walk into a stranger’s house and find it,” Beerman said.
She noted two major forms of financial exploitation.
“The first is by obtaining a checkbook or an ATM card and taking cash directly,” Beerman said. “The abuser says, ‘I’ll help you pay the bills,’ and the victim doesn’t realize what is going on until the heat or electricity is shut off.”
The second form of financial exploitation is identity theft, “starting a credit card account without the other person’s knowledge or consent,” Beerman said.
Elderly victims can suddenly discover that their names, addresses and Social Security numbers have been used to run up tens of thousands of dollars of credit card debt.
Beerman said social workers and concerned family and friends may see warning signs of financial abuse.
“They may no longer be answering the phone or responding to their emails,” Beerman said, noting that abusers usually seek to isolate their victims from friends and other family members.
“You may see unpaid bills or notices on the table,” Beerman added. “They may develop health issues because they can no longer afford their medications.”
Beerman said victims are usually reluctant to talk about money because they are embarrassed and because the abuser is a family member.
“There is not a strong proclivity to have criminal consequences for your grandson or daughter,” Beerman said. “But it is abuse, and it is criminally punishable.”
Temby said few of the cases she investigates result in prosecution, because the abuser may have power of attorney or the culprit may be an anonymous telemarketing scammer.
“Sometimes we can stop the bleeding, but we can’t get any kind of prosecution because of the difficulty of the case or because of the anonymity,” Temby said. “We have been able to remove powers of attorney because they were clearly misappropriating the money.”
While the vast majority of financial exploitation cases involve relatives, one of the largest cases in Waupaca was the result of a telemarketing scam based in Canada.
Detective Sgt. Brian Hoelzel of the Waupaca Police Department investigated a case where an elderly woman lost more than $100,000.
The victim received a phone call, informing her that she had won the Canadian lottery and needed to send money to pay the taxes and handling fees on her winnings.
“By the time we found out about it, there was not just one transaction but multiple transactions,” Hoelzel said.
He said the suspects also used the Waupaca victim to make contact with three other victims in other states.
“It’s difficult to find the suspects because they’re operating out of another country and all the information they provide is false,” Hoelzel said. “They would rent a post office box for 30 days, then stop payment on the box and open another one in another city. By the time we contacted authorities in the other country, the suspects had moved on, using different post office boxes and different phone numbers.”
Hoelzel described a recent fraud complaint in which a Waupaca woman received a call from someone purporting to be from her bank. The caller knew the local resident’s name, address and the last four digits of her Social Security number,
“They said they had a late payment on an Internet purchase and wanted her bank account information,” Hoelzel said.
The woman suspected fraud and called law enforcement and her bank.
In another recent fraud report, an older Waupaca woman received a call from someone pretending to be her grandchild. The caller claimed to have been in an accident and asked the woman to wire money for medical treatment.
“She was smart enough to call her daughter and find out if her grandchild was actually on the trip,” Hoelzel said.
Hoelzel said people who receive suspicious calls should call law enforcement and, if they believe their checking account may be compromised, they should immediately contact their bank.
“A banking institution should never be calling you and asking for your account information over the phone. They’ll want to do that in person,” Hoelzel said.
Beerman said cooperation among police, banks and social workers can provide a triangle of protection for vulnerable adults.
She said financial institutions can take action if they believe someone is stealing from an account. A bank can ask for certification that a person seeking to withdraw money from an account has power of attorney. They can also lock down assets and notify law enforcement.
“The elderly population tends to do their banking in person, so the tellers know these clients and can be the first line of defense,” Beerman said.