I write crime fiction. My novel Stalking Midas features a ruthless con artist who charms seniors out of their life savings.
When $20,000 was stolen from my adopted mother, Ruth, the crime became personal.
At 90, Ruth’s health was declining, but her proud, independent spirit remained as strong as ever. She was determined to stay in her San Diego home of 40-plus years. Even though her daughter Ellie and I talked regularly with her by phone, we both lived long distances away and couldn’t see to her daily needs. After several close calls, Ruth finally consented to a home health aide.
“Jessica” had cared for Ruth’s older sibling for several years, and her children vouched for her. Jessica could supervise medications, do chores, and drive Ruth to visit her sister. Ellie and I believed we’d found the perfect solution.
Ruth suffered a catastrophic stroke. Ellie and I rushed to San Diego. While Ruth was hospitalized, we discovered suspicious credit card charges and unauthorized electronic fund transfers (EFTs) from her bank accounts.
Ellie confronted Jessica, who broke down and admitted she’d been using Ruth’s credit cards. She sent text messages of apology and promised to pay back the stolen funds. But, with each passing day, evidence of additional theft came to light, totaling more than $20,000.
Undoing the Damage
We notified the various suppliers. A local San Diego bank immediately closed Ruth’s account and sent the case to their fraud department. Discover froze Ruth’s account and provided photocopies for the past year, showing thousands of dollars in bogus charges.
But we ran into trouble with a Big-Name National Bank that handled Ruth’s VISA. An officer refused to freeze the account or provide copies of suspicious charges, even though Ellie had Ruth’s power of attorney. Big-Name Bank’s policy: their legal department had to review the POA before any action could be taken. Review required 10 business days.
That left the account wide open to more fraud. We destroyed the card and prayed Jessica didn’t have a duplicate.
We also filed a report with the San Diego Police Department. Detectives assured us there was more than enough evidence to recommend prosecution.
Two weeks after the stroke, Ruth passed away just before her 91st birthday.
At the funeral, we talked with relatives of Ruth’s sister, who’d died a few months earlier, and learned jewelry and money mysteriously disappeared during Jessica’s caregiving.
Meanwhile, Jessica apparently fled to Arizona.
The biggest shock hit when detectives told us the case against Jessica was dropped, because Ruth couldn’t testify.
We learned that if a victim of elder fraud dies, the case is closed. Ellie checked with the Los Angeles courts where she works. Same story.
California’s disappointing response to the crime made me wonder how my home state of Montana enforced elder fraud laws. I did some research.
Montana Code Annotated 45-6-333 provides for fines not exceeding $10,000 and up to 10 years in prison.
Susan Kunda, Agency on Aging, says social services often learn about fraud before law enforcement does. For instance, victims seek help from the agency because they’ve been evicted. Follow-up investigation often reveals family members sold the victim’s assets and pocketed the money, resulting in the eviction.
Jim Wardensky, Kalispell Police Department, says elder fraud cases are challenging to investigate, because caregivers can “endear themselves” to victims who refuse to cooperate, despite evidence of financial exploitation. The victim believes: She’s my friend; or I need her to take care of me.
According to Wardensky, if a victim dies because of a criminal act, the suspect is prosecuted. However, if the victim’s death is not caused by a crime, the fraud case becomes a civil dispute.
Flathead County Attorney Travis Ahner says, even though a case meets statutory requirements, circumstances can prevent prosecution. Victims often won’t press charges or testify. He recommends prevention is the best way to defeat fraud and suggests review of financial records by a second or third set of eyes, to catch suspicious activity.
Very Few Reported
The U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) estimates only one in 44 cases is reported. Victims are reluctant to come forward, because they’re embarrassed, ashamed, and fearful that they’ll lose control of their money if a trustee or court-appointed guardian takes charge.
Here’s the harsh reality: elder fraud yields high rewards with low risk of punishment. CFPB estimates losses of $36.5 billion per year and rising. When criminals steal without consequences, they are emboldened to repeat the crime.
The best defense against elder fraud is prevention. Take precautions before it happens. Afterward, it’s too late.
How did Ruth’s case conclude?
Thankfully, Discover and the local bank reversed all charges.
Big-Name Bank eventually closed Ruth’s VISA then tried to claim her estate owed more than $5000, despite proof the charges were fraudulent. They did not collect.
Jessica disappeared and has likely victimized others.
After experiencing elder fraud up close and personal, I rewrote parts of my thriller, Stalking Midas, to incorporate hard lessons and insights. Although my novel is different from Ruth’s situation, I hope readers recognize warning signals in the story to help protect loved ones.
Justice never caught up with Jessica. However, a crime fiction writer can dispense justice on the page.
And I did! MSN
Debbie Burke lives in Kalispell and is the author of award-winning thrillers, Instrument of the Devil, Stalking Midas, and Eyes in the Sky (publication January 2020). She warns about elder fraud at public appearances and senior communities. For more information, visit debbieburkewriter.com .