Swindlers' top targets are senior citizens

WASHINGTON — Murders and violent crimes are down nationwide, but one kind of crime is rising steadily: scams against the elderly.

Senior citizens are low-key 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.

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 25 million people between 75 and 84. Nine million will be even older.

Officials in Washington said the number of financial exploitations against older people has remained flat, but more seniors are falling prey to offshore fake 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 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. 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.

Less known but more common are victims such as Ted and Eleanor Beattie, 96 and 92, who live in suburban Silver Spring, Md.

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 clerk 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. At 83, Beattie retired from the embassy.

By his 90s, he had received a diagnosis of dementia and agreed to assign financial power of attorney to his son Chris. Ted Beattie continued reading weekly issues of the Economist, trimming his yard with an electric mower, tending 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 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 the roof and told the Beatties they needed work. 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.

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 nationwide. "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."

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 elder 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.