Crimes against senior citizens have steadily been on the rise over the past decade in Orange County and now the criminals, police, prosecutors and family members are getting desperate.
The recent case about a Costa Mesa man who was arrested by the Newport Beach Police Department (NBPD) in April and charged with stealing more than $280,000 from a blind and deaf 98-year-old woman who had dementia was just one out of thousands reported each year in Orange County.
The victim, identified only as Edna M., died before the investigation, which took several years to develop and gather evidence, was complete and the man was arrested. John Thomas Windsor is due in court for a pre-trial hearing on June 30.
Each year, approximately 2 million American seniors are abused, neglected, or exploited, according to the Elder Abuse Forensic Center of Orange County (EAFC). In Orange County, Adult Protective Services (APS) receives 500 reports of abuse each month. For every report of abuse, five go unreported, indicating that more than 30,000 of our County’s most vulnerable adults endure elder abuse each year.
There has been a 65 percent increase in reports of financial and physical abuse and neglect countywide since 2000. In 2010, there were 7,422 unduplicated reports taken at the OC Adult Abuse Registry, up from 4,503 in 2000.
Although the county-wide figures have been on a steady and strong increase in recent years, the Newport Beach numbers have seen only a slight increase over the years.
In 2010 in Newport Beach, there were a total of 97 cases of abuse against a senior citizen reported to APS.
That’s a jump since 2009, when APS received 85 total reports of abuse against seniors in Newport Beach, but on par with 2008, when there were 94 total cases reported to APS from Newport Beach.
“Crime against senior citizens does occur,“ said Newport Beach Police Department (NBPD) Crime Prevention Specialist Andi Querry.
There are only a handful of senior-targeted crimes reported to the police in Newport Beach per year, Querry said, but there seem to be more that go unreported. There are no official statistics through the police department, she said, this is a estimate from her personal experience of 12 years on the job.
Adult Protection Services, a division of the OC Social Services Agency, is directed at preventing or remedying neglect, abuse or exploitation of adults who are unable to protect their own interests because of age or disability. Most of their cases involve a family member, caretaker or someone the victim knows personally as the abuser. While the NBPD deals more with the cases involving strangers creating senior-targeted scams.
“(Senior citizens are) absolutely targeted,” said Terry Lynn Fisher, public information officer and legislative analyst for the Orange County Social Services Agency. “Unconsciously or consciously, it may be a crime of opportunity or (a planned crime)… It doesn’t take much to hurt them physically or financially.”
Out of those 97 APS abuse cases in Newport Beach in 2010, family members were the alleged abusers in 57 of them, 14 were caregivers and 26 were classified as other.
Newport Beach accounts for approximately three percent of all the reports of abuse and neglect that APS receives.
In 2010, 29 percent of countywide APS cases of abuse by others was financial, 27 percent was neglect, 24 percent was psychological, 16 percent was physical, two percent each for sexual and isolation, one percent for abandonment and 0.2 percent for abduction.
Newport Beach accounts for two to three percent of the total county-wide cases of self-neglect, according to APS. It is considered self-neglect when the person can no longer take care of themselves, physically and/or mentally.
Self-neglect is the most common type of neglect reported, Fisher said, they get to the point where they can’t take care of themselves. Many don’t want to say anything because they don’t want to be a burden to anyone. Most still want to live independently as well, Fisher said.
“That loss of independence is a huge deal,” she said. “The transition from being independent and caring for children and others to being dependent on someone else and being cared for…. Nobody likes it nobody wants to make it.”
Many victims of self-neglect don’t even realize they aren’t taking proper care of themselves, Fisher said.
As the population ages Fisher expects to see more cases of self-neglect and the sheer number of elder abuse will continue to rise, she said.
The number of incidents of elder abuse seem to increase with age, Fisher said. Seniors age 85 and over are five times as likely to suffer from some form of abuse as the younger crowd of seniors. And the 85 and over group is the fastest growing segment of the population, Fisher said.
The APS figures showed that approximately one in every 33 seniors over the age of 85 suffered from some form of abuse or neglect in 2010.
As people get older it can become more frustrating for some family members. They’re senses are declining, reflexes are slowing down and their physically becoming weaker. It takes significantly more energy and time to interact with somebody disabled or elderly, Fisher said.
Senior citizens should be especially aware of fraud schemes, according to the FBI, because they are specifically targeted. The FBI’s website for common fraud schemes that target seniors states that because many senior citizens have a “nest egg” in their home and they’re trusting and polite, two personality traits that con artists will exploit, they are more likely to be targeted by criminals.
“Older Americans are less likely to report a fraud because they don’t know who to report it to, are too ashamed at having been scammed, or don’t know they have been scammed,” the FBI website states.
Con artists also count on elderly victims not remembering them or the details of the crime, the FBI site states, which also makes them a target.
Many senior citizens tend to be trusting, Fisher said, which unfortunately makes them vulnerable to criminals. They aren’t strong enough to protect themselves and their bodies are much more fragile, she added.
Many seniors don’t want to report a family member or a caretaker that they have trusted for so many years, she said.
They might be embarrassed if they got scammed or they’re just unsure if it is something they should report, Querry said.
“It’s very under-reported,” Fisher said.
There are a few types of crimes that target seniors, Querry said, including a scam that involves the suspect pretending to be a grandchild in distress. Other common crimes that don’t necessarily specifically target senior citizens, but often victimize the elderly, include lotto or car winning scams and door-to-door service or repair worker ploys.
A recent local example of the winning phone call scam occurred in March, Querry said. The suspect called the victim, an 86-year-old woman, at home and told her she had won a car. All she needed to do, the suspect told her, was send money to cover the taxes.
She was unsure at first and hung up, Querry said, but the suspect was persistent and kept calling. She finally began to believe it was a legitimate source and wired the money to the suspect.
If someone calls offering a car, money or any kind of gift, just hang up, Querry said.
Two senior citizens that recently became victims of the service or repair worker scam is a couple living on the peninsula. A woman in her 80’s had just brought her husband home from the hospital, Querry said, when the suspect approached her and claimed to be a roofer.
She gave the suspect her regular handyman’s name and company and asked if they had sent him, he replied yes and told her he needed to examine the roof and left her alone.
While the first suspect was out of sight, another “roofer” came inside and began to ask her various questions and causing a commotion, Querry said.
She started to think that something was wrong and called her regular handyman, Querry said. Once he told her he didn’t send anyone she confronts them and they flee, but not before grabbing a large amount of money out of her wallet.
The most recent version of this con uses the act of selling a home security system, Querry said.
“Now, unsolicited, you’ve let someone in your house and introduced them to your home’s weak spots,” Querry said. The bottom line is “don’t let anyone in your door that you don’t know.”
Another way criminals get into the victim’s home is by approaching the victim, either on the street or at their residence, and claiming to know them. They come off friendly, charming and believable, Querry said.
If the victim can’t remember they often ask the suspect if they are a relative of a specific person or if they met at a specific location, offering up detailed information that the suspect can use to gain the victim’s trust.
Fisher recalled an example that APS got involved with recently. The suspect, a young male stranger, approached an 79-year-old man with dementia while he was walking his dog.
The suspect spent some time chatting with the elderly man and then invited him to a supposed family birthday party. He somehow convinced the victim to withdraw $19,000 from his bank and then flees.
Many senior citizens are desperate for interaction, Fisher said, and con artists prey on that.
“(Suspects) often use some type of ploy to convince them,” Querry said.
A very common scam that specifically targets the elderly is the “grandparent scam” or the “grandchild in distress scam”
The suspect will call, say “Hi Grandma” or something similar that draws a grandchild’s name in response (“Oh, hi Jason!”), and then claim they are stuck in a foreign country or a different state, or they were in an accident or they are somehow in trouble.
Querry recalled an instance where the suspect told the victim a story that seemed plausible for her grandson. He asked her to send money and explained how to wire money via Western Union.
“He walked her through the whole thing,” Querry said. “As soon as they start talking about Western Union or money transfer, start questioning it. Hang up and call another family member. Find out where the (person in question) is for sure.”
Financial abuse is the most common type of abuse against senior citizens committed by others.
Part of the reason for the increase in reports of financial abuse over the past few years is because banks and other financial institutions became mandated reporters of financial abuse in 2007.
In 2010, there were 1,272 reports of financial abuse countywide, a 51 percent increase since 2006 (but just 12 percent increase since 2009).
The number of physical abuse cases against seniors has gone up 40 percent since 2006. Last year there were 702 reports of this kind of abuse.
Neglect of elders is also reported to APS, since 2006 there has been an increase of almost 43 percent of reports county-wide.
The number of years someone convicted of elder abuse will spend in prison depends on the specific charges and whether or not there are any sentencing enhancements.
The initial investigation can take weeks, months and even years while authorities gather evidence.
The Orange County-based Elder Abuse Forensic Center is attempting to change the way elder abuse cases are prosecuted though, collaborating with professionals from nine legal, medical, social services, and law enforcement agencies to work on cases.
The center, which launched in 2003, recently received the award for Professional Innovation in Victim Services at the Attorney General’s Annual Victims’ Service Awards hosted by the Department of Justice. The center was award the honor for helping expand the reach of victims’ rights and services.
The EAFC takes all of the resources available from existing elder advocacy agencies and channels them to combat and prosecute elder mistreatment.
In the end, though, the No. 1 rule is: Don’t let anybody unknown walk through the door, Querry said. For home services and repairs, ask a neighbor or friend to recommend somebody, Querry said, and be sure to meet them beforehand.
“(That rule is) for anyone, not just seniors,” Querry said. “Don’t let anybody in you don’t know.”
If an unknown person knocks at the door, acknowledge that someone is home so any burglars will be deterred. Call the police about anything suspicious, Querry said, even if a possible burglar was scared away, she added, because he or she may head to a neighbor’s house.
Another rule to live by: Stay alert.
“If you feel someone is trying to lure you one way or grab your attention, that’s a sign that a crime could be occurring,” Querry said.
To help others, just be neighborly, Querry said.
“If you have seniors in the neighborhood,” keep an eye out for anything strange, Querry said. “Just be neighborly, check in on each other.”
It also helps to get involved with the family member or friend’s life.
“You need to listen to your loved ones and be involved with their lives,” Fisher said. “Be aware of what’s going in their lives… If you truly notice something amiss report it.”
Be vigilant at home too, Querry said. Keep doors and windows secure and store valuables in a well concealed safe, ideally bolted or secured to concrete. If a worker or someone does come inside, hide any visible calendars, she said, which usually have vacation or time out of town marked. That is an easy way for a criminal to find out important information before they burglarize a home.
The NBPD offers free home security inspections and a free senior safety talk, Querry said. The senior safety talk is open to any group of five or more, like a church group, book club or even a group of neighbors or friends.
Also be aware of anyone that seems overly friendly out of the blue, Querry warned. Stay focused and make sure nothing else is happening just out of view or in another room.
“When you feel you might be (purposely) distracted, don’t worry about embarrassing yourself or them, just move out of that situation immediately,” Querry said. “And if it was completely innocent it might have been a little uncomfortable, but that’s better than being a victim of a crime.”
Resources for Seniors:
Adult Protective Services 24/7 hotline:1-800-451-5155
Newport Beach Police Department, non-emergency: 1-800-550-6273
Newport Beach Police Department: nbpd.org
Social Services Agency, Orange County: ocgov.com/ocgov/SocialServicesAgency
Adult Protective Services of Orange County: ocgov.com/ocgov/Social Services Agency/Abuse Reporting/Elder Disabled
Elder Abuse Forensic Center: elderabuseforensiccenter.com/
Council on Aging, Orange County: coaoc.org
Center of Excellence on Elder Abuse & Neglect: centeronelderabuse.org/
FBI, Common Frauds Targeted Toward Seniors: fbi.gov/scams-safety/fraud/seniors
Do Not Call or Solicit: www.donotcall.gov/■ ftc.gov/bcp/edu/pubs/consumer/alerts/alt063.shtm ■ newportbeachca.gov/index.aspx?page=1518