By Sue Lindsey
Howard began to suspect something was terribly wrong with his aunt’s finances a few years ago when a $50 check she had sent for his birthday bounced. He eventually discovered that his sister-in-law, whom his aunt had trusted to take care of her bills, had drained her accounts and left her deep in debt.
Howard, of Arlington County, didn’t want his full named used to protect his 76-year-old aunt from further embarrassment. She lost her house, her car was repossessed, and she owed thousands of dollars for purchases and repairs she didn’t authorize. Past due notices were intercepted and her accounts were switched to online banking, Howard said, so she had no idea of the debt.
The aunt now lives in a small house Howard owns in Ashland. Each month, $300 is garnisheed from her Social Security check toward $12,000 in back taxes.
“The emotional toll is immeasurable,” said Howard, 54. “It’s the feeling of betrayal, particularly for an elderly person who has been through decades when they had people they could trust.”
More than 1,000 adults are known to be financially exploited in Virginia each year, according to a state report issued in December. In nearly 60 percent of the cases reviewed, a family member carried out the exploitation.
Financial exploitation cost vulnerable Virginians at least $28.2 million in 2015, the report found. But studies estimate that only 1 in 44 cases nationally of such abuse are reported.
Many victims are hesitant to report financial abuse, said Paige McCleary, director of the state Adult Protective Services (APS) Division. The perpetrator might be their only caretaker.
Victims, she said, “may be incredibly ashamed, if they raised this person from infancy.”
Exposing the problem
“This is one of the most quiet, silent crimes there is, like domestic violence in years past,” said Del. Chris Peace (R-Mechanicsville). His bill created the workgroup that issued the December report.
The group included social services workers, bankers and law enforcement agents. It recommended ways to help uncover financial abuse, including assistance and training for APS workers reviewing financial records.
Bank tellers can help spot exploitation if activity in a person’s account changes suddenly, said Rick Pillow, president of the Virginia Credit Union League and a workgroup member. Financial institutions then notify Adult Protective Services for an investigation, he said.
“It really takes the eyes of everyone—neighbors, bank tellers, people who come into the home to deliver meals, home health care workers,” said David DeBiasi, AARP Virginia advocacy director and another workgroup member. “They’re the ones who begin to see it first.”
DeBiasi has been involved in trying to strengthen laws on financial exploitation. Before 2013, he said, such exploitation was not a separate criminal offense.
In February, the General Assembly passed—and Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) signed—a bill Peace sponsored that broadens the definition of adult exploitation, based on the workgroup’s recommendations.
Criminal charges were brought against Howard’s sister-in-law, who is serving 18 months in prison, said Ashland Police Investigator John Street, also a workgroup member. He said his investigation moved faster because Howard and his aunt were involved.
Howard encouraged people to obtain their credit reports if they suspect financial abuse.
AARP’s Fraud Watch Network has tips on how to avoid scams and offers a toll-free help line (877-908-3360).
To report suspected financial abuse, call your local Department of Social Services or the state Adult Protective Services hotline toll-free at 888-832-3858.
Sue Lindsey is a writer living in Roanoke.