The Public Eye

Reports of elder financial abuse surge in Sacramento County


Reports of elder financial abuse jumped by 72 percent last year in Sacramento County as the public gained awareness of such crimes, more baby boomers entered retirement age and technology made it easier to perpetrate scams.

Financial abuse of the elderly can be inflicted by strangers who con their victims out of money but more often involves relatives and friends who take advantage of a victim’s trust, officials say. The elderly are seen as particularly vulnerable because of declining mental and physical fitness, they add.

Sacramento County is better prepared to handle the increase after reinstating a financial abuse unit within Adult Protective Services in January 2015. The county had eliminated the financial unit during the recession, but reinstated it because of concerns the county was unable to handle an increase in financial abuse claims.

Reports of such abuse had been rising for a while, and experts had pointed to demographic and technological trends as reasons the crimes would continue. A widely cited report by insurer Met Life called financial scams against the elderly “the crime of the 21st century.”

One contributing factor is the aging of the population, with the baby boom generation entering its senior years. About 170,000 people, or 12 percent of the population in Sacramento County, were 65 or older in 2014, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates. That’s about 2 percent higher than 10 years earlier.

Another is technological, with scam artists from Canada and Jamaica using the internet to make phone calls that appear to have been made in Sacramento County, said Debbi Thomson, a manager for the county division that includes APS. The scam artists try to enlist the elderly into helping them collect bogus lottery winnings.

A third trend – higher public awareness – appears to have spiked last year at the same time reports went up, according to Thomas and Heidi Richardson, a program planner who previously worked for APS. In June 2015, the county paid for an eight-page advertising supplement in several publications, including The Sacramento Bee, explaining problems handled by Adult Protective Services.

The same month, APS received 403 reports, a record for one month, Richardson said.

Financial institutions have become more aware of scams against the elderly, in part because of a state law that requires them to report suspected abuse to county APS agencies, said Linda Sweet, adviser to First U.S. Credit Union and a member of Sacramento County’s Financial Abuse Specialist Team. The team consists of experts from various fields and helps APS and other agencies with investigative problems.

She said her credit union trains every employee to know the signs of fraud when dealing with elderly customers. She said the credit union once had an elderly customer who never used her credit card and all of a sudden had charges for $300 taxi rides. The rides turned out to be short trips made by someone other than the credit card holder.

“The scams have gotten more sophisticated,” said Sweet, who has served on the specialist team for approximately 15 years. “The elderly are often lonely, so they’re more likely to engage with people and become vulnerable.”

In a case prosecuted by the District Attorney’s Office last year, contractor Patrick R. Murphy was found to have targeted at least 12 elderly victims in a scam that involved small repairs at their houses. “Once those jobs were completed, Murphy quickly added jobs which grew in cost far exceeding the value of the work done. In several instances, payments were repeatedly made for the same work,” the office said in a news release.

Murphy, who defrauded the victims in excess of $500,000, was sentenced to 12 years in prison.

APS social workers lack law-enforcement powers, so they must submit cases of possible criminal activity to police. Cases in which victims lose money but criminal culpability is less clear sometimes are forwarded to one of the legal clinics at the McGeorge School of Law.

Melissa Brown, director of the clinics, said she has students authorized by the bar association to provide legal services under her supervision. They have filed several cases in Superior Court on behalf of elderly clients they say were defrauded of money, including one woman who lost everything – more than $100,000 – Brown said.

Such cases prove devastating for the victims. “Income security determines physical health. It’s hard to survive with no money,” she said. “When the finances are gone, it’s a big deal.”

Brown and Sweet say the county has benefited from reinstating the financial unit in Adult Protective Services. The financial cases often are complicated, and social workers develop expertise by specializing in those cases, they say.

The unit is made up of four social workers and one supervisor. Financial abuse is the most common type of report received by Adult Protective Services, which also handles complaints of sexual and physical abuse and other forms of mistreatment. When cases fall short of criminal activity, case workers can help by closing bank accounts, finding financial managers and other assistance, division director Thomas said.

Since the unit’s creation, reports of all types went up 29 percent. APS social workers will handle an average of 150 cases for the fiscal year ending June 30.

Submit tips to Brad Branan: 916-321-1065, @BradB_at_SacBee