As 87-year-old Rene Cuzon du Rest, once a professional in his scientific field, slid further into dementia, his caregiver took over his finances, presented herself as his girlfriend, opened a joint checking account with him and had the power of attorney for him. She fetched the mail, a prosecutor said, including bills he didn’t see.
Over two years, $404,000 of his money funded thousands of dollars in gifts to her children, her designer shopping, an $86,000 Audi — the Bethesda man couldn’t drive — and more.
His bank alerted authorities to a change in his financial habits.
“He had been very parsimonious all of his life,” Montgomery County Assistant State’s Attorney Jessica Hall recently told a room of more than 100 financial planners, social services professionals and others, as she detailed what’s called a “sweetheart swindle.” The bank’s actions kicked off an investigation that started with Adult Protective Services — whose social worker was refused entry by the caregiver until police intervened.
In this case, caregiver Rosetta Horne, who said she and Cuzon du Rest were engaged, was convicted and, in 2015, imprisoned.
With financial crimes against older adults, including romance scams, a hidden epidemic in terms of growing numbers of victims and dollar amounts, prevention has taken on urgency. By the time accusations of bilking a vulnerable adult reach a prosecutor, a lifetime of assets may be siphoned away.
The Charles E. Smith Life Communities and its ElderSAFE Center marked Valentine’s Day by hosting a seminar on protecting older clients and loved ones from being victimized. Speakers told about concealed crimes, warning signs to look for and how to report suspicions of exploitation.
Reporting suspected financial exploitation is mandatory for certain professionals. That list varies by state but generally includes health and social services workers, and in many states, including Maryland, banking officials.
But additional watchful eyes are needed, the experts said. That’s why not only the professionals but the community, said ElderSAFE Director Tovah Kasdin, should learn to recognize warning signs of financial abuse of relatives, neighbors and friends, and report their suspicions to Adult Protective Services and police.
The signs of a sweetheart swindle are, first, infiltration into the victim’s life, followed by isolation of the victim, and finally the financial exploitation, said Steven Corley, a management and program analyst in the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3). Romance scams take place online and in person.
“Once this isolation occurs, it is really your banker that sees your exploitation,” Hall said.
Demographics point to an expanding pool of potential victims: an older population growing in numbers, often needing assistance at home, and who may have money but not trusted relatives or other keeping an eye on their finances and cognitive decline. Loneliness makes them easier prey for scammers, whether in person or online.
In 2018, Corey told attendees, confidence fraud and romance scams were the No. 2 complaint from Marylanders in terms of dollars (more than $6.7 million) to the FBI’s IC3. The largest number of victims who filed complaints: people over age 60, followed by those between 50 and 59.
“We try to follow the money trail,” he said. But “when the money goes overseas, your chances of getting back the money goes down.”
Mario Wawrzusin, administrator of the county’s assessment, Adult Protective Services and care management services, said with Montgomery among the wealthiest counties, its residents are attractive prey.
Statistically, Hall said, 36 percent of senior citizens fall victim to financial exploitation, but only an estimated one of 25 reports it, often due to embarrassment. And, they may need their exploiter.
“They are relying on their abuser to take care of their daily needs, so these types of victims are less likely to go forward,” said Hall, who also serves on the county’s Elder and Vulnerable Adult Abuse Task Force.
Wawrzusin said he is heartened by the village movement and outreach groups, and others, such as mail carriers and Meals on Wheels, among those who stay in touch with senior citizens.
“Having that social contact with seniors is crucial,” he said.
Anyone who sees anomalies in anything from online activity (including financial transactions and responses to email scams) to behavior changes can raise the alarm.
“When we talk about solving the issue of financial elder abuse, the No. 1 way I think to solve this problem is through community engagement and community action. And when you see people who are showing some signs of financial exploitation, it is incumbent on you even if you are not a mandatory reporter … to report this to the appropriate authority,” Hall said.
Andrea F. Siegel is a Washington-area writer.