By Karen D. Lorentz
The well-attended AARP Scam Jam was held at the Rutland Country Club, Nov. 15. Attendees said the event was informative, tremendously educational, and even shocking at times.
Fraud is a huge multi-billion-dollar per year crime with seniors the most targeted cohort, noted Greg Machildon, AARP’s state director.
Education is the way to combat scams, he said, noting, “Chances of getting money back are little to none.”
People need to educate others to create greater awareness of the scams facing Vermonters, he stressed.
Attorney General-Elect TJ Donovan drove home that point in his keynote address, his first public presentation since being elected AG the week prior.
A sad reality
Noting the heroin epidemic in Vermont, Donovan, who is currently Chittenden County State’s Attorney, stated there’s a financial epidemic of exploitation of seniors and cited seeing more of these difficult cases.
He shared a case of an elderly woman dropped off at a motel by her son with no money, no food, nothing. He praised the worker who called for a welfare check, noting the woman was confused. He added that she had not paid her property taxes and was $40,000 in arrears and her home had been in a very nice neighborhood but was nearly uninhabitable due to ongoing neglect.
The police found the son living in Switzerland and further investigation discovered he sold the house for $350,000, pocketing a $288,000 profit.
When contacted, the son complained that hospitalization wasn’t doing his mother any good and that all the emails were getting him angry, stating, “I understand the situation is urgent but I must get back to my work.” He also explained that the “plan was for her to go to Switzerland and to please explain this to her. I’m planning to come back in November,” he had added.
Community awareness, caring key
Noting that others had to have been aware of the woman’s situation, Donovan shared the sad reality of elder abuse and neglect, noting over 10 percent of older Americans experience abuse or neglect. Risk factors include social isolation, dementia, living situations, and even powers of attorney (POA), he explained, adding that elderly women are more at risk of neglect and abuse, including sexual and financial, and that it is on the rise. (A POA is a legal document giving financial control to another person and can be a problem if that person is not carefully chosen.)
Donovan stressed that he “gets why people don’t report” these cases, noting much of this abuse occurs by family members. “There is a feeling of stigma and shame but we need to address that issue and educate people to make them aware of the many scams that are perpetrated on our vulnerable citizens,” he said. “People who have worked hard all their lives deserve to have shelter, food, and dignity in their senior years,” Donovan stressed, stating a warrant had been signed for the son’s arrest (should he in fact return).
Scam awareness, communication, education solutions
Donovan reviewed the many scams that defraud Vermonters, from the grandparents’ email asking for money to the home improvement fraud which he said is “big” in this state.
Scams don’t just target seniors, and they are ever-changing. In an effort to inform more Vermonters, a scam warning is put out by the Office of the Attorney General’s consumer assistance program and is available on its website, uvm.edu/consumer.
Donovan said he sees the multi-disciplinary team model that is working in the heroin epidemic as part of the solution to fraud. Adult Protective Services, which is under the Department of Aging and Independent Living, may not forward information to another agency, he said, noting as AG he will seek more communication among various agencies as part of addressing the neglect and abuse of Vermont’s vulnerable.
He also wants to see an abuse registry listing scammers so persons hiring a worker can check it and not be ripped off by someone who takes money up front and runs.
Communication, raising awareness, and education are all key to stopping these consumer frauds, he noted, reiterating that people deserve to live with dignity in retirement and that we “have to think like rational empathetic human beings and care about people.”
It’s about “leaving nobody behind,” he said.
“My pledge to you is I’m getting out of Chittenden County and coming to your communities,” Donovan added, encouraging people to “speak up for yourselves, for your neighbors” and concluding, “government has to work for you.”