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Preventing thefts and recovering assets stolen from vulnerable adults, elders and the dead has been the focus of my elder law practice for the past decade. These forms of thefts are a problem not only in my home state of Vermont, but throughout our country, and in the world at large.
After more than 10 years of handling theft cases in my practice, this is my conclusion:
Thieves who target the elderly and the dead are relentless, cunning, and patient in their pursuit of the money of others. They are predators. Vulnerable adults, especially elders with dementia who are alone in the world, are perfect targets for theft and need our protection.
I offer this post to help readers understand the ways in which predators steal from vulnerable adults or estates, what can be done to prevent these types of thefts, and how and who to report a suspected theft to.
This is a long post because this topic best explained with case examples. Please bear with me; I think this information may be helpful to you or those you love.
Just How Much is Stolen from Vulnerable Elders?
A recent report by True Link Financial on Elder Financial Abuse in 2015 estimates that $19 billion is lost annually to fraud by criminals and abuse of trust by friends, family members, and paid helpers.
It is also estimated that 954,000 seniors are currently skipping meals as a direct result of being the victim of some form of financial abuse.
For more information on the financial losses due to theft from vulnerable elders, you can go to www.truelinkfinancial.com/research.
Unfortunately, I cannot find any verified data on the dollar amounts stolen from estates (guardianship or probate estates). Probate courts do not collect and archive this type of financial data nationally.
What Is Stolen?
Thefts from the dead fall into two basic categories:
1) Theft from the body of a dead person; and
2) Theft of property and/or money from their home and estate.
It just so happens that thefts from vulnerable adults and elders also fall into two basic categories:
1.) Theft of property, including homes deeded over, cars retitled, medication (especially narcotic pain medications that can be sold for cash), art work or jewelry taken without the knowledge or the consent of the elder, or taken from an elder through coercion or intimidation or undue influence; and
2) Theft of financial assets such as: taking cash or draining bank accounts; running up credit card balances or getting new cards in the elder’s name; stealing IRS refunds; stealing Social Security retirement or disability checks; stealing pension payments; defrauding elders into investing in businesses that don’t exist; coercing an elder into co-signing a loan at a bank; getting elders to buy expensive cars and jewelry and making “gifts” to the abuser. Frankly, the list is endless in this category.
Who is stealing from the elderly and the dead?
Strangers steal from elders and the dead. Family members steal from elderly and dead relatives. Friends steal from dead friends. Agents under a document known as a Power of Attorney steal from vulnerable adults and elders who have asked them to manage their assets. Legal Guardians appointed by probate courts steal from vulnerable adults they are supposed to protect. Executors or Administrators of estates, or legal heirs steal from estates.
Theft from vulnerable elders and the dead is an equal opportunity crime.
And you don’t have to be a millionaire to be a target for theft. As you will see in the examples below, anyone and any estate can be a target for theft.
It’s also important to know that theft from the dead is not a victim-less crime. When people steal from a dead or dying person, they are stealing from a widow or widower, from the deceased’s children and relations, and from the community. For example, if there are no funds to bury a body, then the local taxpayers pick up the tab for cremation and burial, unless the family or friends step up to bear the costs.
Let’s consider the following examples of how theft occurs.
Theft of property from the dead
- In Florida, a funeral home employee stole the wedding band and engagement ring off a dead woman a few days before Christmas in 2013.
- In another Florida case in August of 2014, a funeral home employee went into a home to transport a deceased elderly woman to the funeral home. When he came out of the bedroom with the body he had a gold chain hanging from his pants pocket. The police, who had been called to the deceased’s home at the time of death, took notice of that chain hanging from the funeral home employee’s pocket and quickly confronted the man and recovered the deceased’s jewelry on the spot. The man had taken approximately $1,000 of jewelry from the deceased’s bedroom. It’s reported that the jewelry had been on a bureau in plain sight.
These cases are not confined to Florida. Sadly, these types of thefts happen every day in every state and in every country.
Theft of money from the dead
- In August 2014, a homeless man died shortly after receiving a $20,000 inheritance from his parent’s estate. Shortly thereafter, he died. The day after he was found dead, his close friend convinced an acquaintance who worked at the deceased’s bank to transfer $18,000 from the deceased’s account into the friend’s account. After a tip from the deceased’s family about the recent inheritance, the police investigating the death went to the bank and the illegal transfer was identified and the money was recovered.
- In July 2013, a funeral home worker took personal banking information, as well as a debit card and credit cards, off the body of a man he was transporting. He quickly withdrew more than $5,000 from the deceased’s bank account and charged nearly $1,000 on the credit card. The widow immediately reported these thefts and unauthorized charges after making a visit to the bank. The thefts were traced back to the funeral home employee. In fact, the thief was seen on bank video going into the deceased’s bank for the withdrawals and then driving away in the funeral home’s van with the company logo on the side.
Thefts from Estates
After a death, family, friends, even the courts supervising an estate of a dead person, can fall victim to financial predators who know how to use the disability or death of a member of the community to their benefit.
For example, I worked on a recent Vermont case where a local businessman was appointed as the administrator of an estate of a woman who died without any family or friends. Using his position as a court appointed administrator, he stole money from the deceased’s brokerage account and her money market account for his personal use. Ultimately, he was reported to the F.B.I. for that crime and pled guilty.
When confronted by the F.B.I. with this estate theft, the man confessed to an additional crime. It seems he was also receiving a dead man’s pension payments for the prior 3 years. Many years earlier, the thief had befriended an elderly man. The thief convinced the man to name him as sole heir, and became joint tenant with right of survivorship on the man’s checking account – the account into which his pension payment was electronically deposited. When the elderly man died, this younger “friend” never reported the death to the pension plan administrator, even though he had been appointed as executor of this man’s estate. He continued to receive the funds each month for 3 years. This instance of pension fraud came to light when he was caught in his second theft involving a dead person.
Also worthy of mention here are the various forms of thefts from vulnerable adults, especially those with dementia. These kinds of thefts are all too common.
In my own law practice I have seen cases where:
- Elders are befriended by total strangers, who then move into their home and ultimately get title to valuable real estate through undue influence;
- A valuable house was sold from a guardianship estate without the court approval prior to sale as required by law. The house had been sold by the Guardian, and the proceeds did not come back into the guardianship estate;
- A family member of an elder tried to get named as joint tenant owner on bank accounts and CDs worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. This attempt was quickly stopped by the bank managers and the elder’s attorneys. In this same case, when the family member failed to get control of the elder’s wealth through banking channels, the relative planned to kidnap the elder, take them to another state and put them under guardianship so the relative could then “take” the elder’s wealth. That kidnapping plot was also stopped by the elder’s legal counsels.
- An in-home caregiver of a married elderly couple stole funds by using a VISA credit card to purchase store gift cards he then redeemed through a California company that paid .90 cents on the dollar. The credit card had been entrusted to the caregiver for the sole purpose of buying groceries and household supplies. The caregiver stole over $90,000 through this one scam. He also activated credit cards in the names of the elders and ran up large balances on those cards. He created and used an online identity to steal all funds from a money market account owned by one of the elders. He also coerced the elders into signing as guarantors for over $105,000 in student loans and $25,000 in personal loans. He is also believed to have stolen valuable rings during his tenure as a live-in caregiver. He is serving time in a federal prison for these acts.
- A grandchild stole their grandparent’s credit card while serving as their caregiver. She ran up the balance of the card by purchasing store gift cards and, it is believed, redeeming the gift cards for money to purchase drugs. This was the second time this grandchild had committed this type of theft from her grandparents.
- A person coming into a home to clean was caught stealing pain medication from the bathroom medicine cabinet. Certain types of prescription medications, especially narcotic pain medications, can be sold for $25 or more for just one tablet (e.g. Oxycontin, Vicodin are popular medicines to steal from unsuspecting adults and elders).
How to prevent thefts before and after you die?
Talk to your lawyer about the following issues, and any others of concern to you, and come up with a plan to protect your assets, both before your death and after your death. If you do not have a lawyer, please find one who understands these issues (usually an estate planning attorney or elder law attorney) and make an appointment to have this discussion.
Here are just a few of the critical issues to talk to your lawyer about:
- Ask the lawyer to advise you on how to pick someone you can trust to manage your estate upon your death. Make sure the person you select knows of your concerns to safeguard your possessions, property and money. Make a solid plan for how your property is to be distributed upon your death.
- Talk with your attorney about how to secure your paperwork and electronic data in your home, both financial and legal documents. Have your lawyer, or in some states the probate court, keep your original will. Make sure you safeguard the original documents that detail your estate plan so they are never lost or destroyed. And talk about what documents you may want or need to place into a lock box or safe deposit box, such as income tax returns, any paperwork that bears your date of birth and social security number, electronic storage devices that back up your home computer, and bank statements.
- Talk with your lawyer about your state’s laws that govern bank accounts and how best to safeguard those accounts. Please think twice about having other people on your bank accounts as joint tenants. Why? Because anyone listed as an owner on a joint account can, at ANY time, take all funds in the account due to their right of ownership. Talk with your lawyer about whether or not you should have other people named on your accounts as joint owners, or whether you should create a Power of Attorney account.
- Go see your lawyer if you feel you need someone to pay your bills and manage your financial life as you age, or to support you in those areas (e.g. hiring a bookkeeper). They may suggest appointing a fiduciary, either an Agent under a Power of Attorney, a Trustee under a form of Trust, or undergoing a voluntary financial guardianship, to serve you and keep you and your finances safe.
- Talk with your lawyer about how to make sure that anyone serving as your Agent or Guardian, Trustee or bookkeeper, has to report to you and account for your money and how it is being used on a routine (monthly/quarterly) schedule. If you are using someone else to manage your money and pay your bills, you could also ask your lawyer or accountant or financial advisor to review with you how your money is being spent by this Agent or Guardian at least twice a year – as it should only be spent for your benefit. If your lawyer sees something wrong with how money is being managed, they can advise you immediately on what actions you can take to correct the problem.
- Talk with your lawyer about how to lock down your credit and make it difficult for anyone to steal your identity before or after your death. What steps can be taken? You might check out any of the credit protection services that are now available, e.g. Lifelock, to protect your credit while you are alive. In addition, your Executor or Trustee should report your death to the credit reporting agencies immediately, as well as reporting a death immediately to the banks and any financial institution holding accounts for you. These are important steps to take to keep your legacy safe.
- Conduct or put together a complete inventory of your valued possessions, and get appraisals on valuable items. Make sure your lawyer/executor/trustee/children or heirs have that inventory, or know where it is, so that if something goes missing, they can know. Video inventories are also good to have if you have any items of significant value.
Here are some additional actions you can take to protect yourself and your property now:
- If you shop on the internet, as many elders do, get a lower limit credit card that you use solely for internet shopping purposes. This is recommended so that if someone gets to your card number through hacking a database or they steal or misuse that card, they can’t run up a big credit card balance.
- Place valuable jewelry in a safe deposit box, or at least a safe locked place out of view from visitors to your home (e.g. home care workers, cleaners). This is especially important for jewelry you are not wearing regularly.
- Review your homeowner’s policy with your insurance agent to see if it covers thefts from your home after your death, while your estate is in probate or is being managed in trust. If you have placed your home in a trust, check with your homeowner’s policy to make sure that your policy is titled correctly to provide coverage to the trust in case of theft from your home.
- Ask your lawyer or financial advisor how best to protect your spouse from becoming a victim of fraud or theft after your death. Widows and widowers are targets for every type of con artist/scam there is. From the lottery scams (where caller says you won the lottery, usually in a foreign country, but you have to wire funds to pay the taxes before you get your proceeds), to romance scams, to the undue influence of “poor” neighbors/strangers, we’ve seen it all. If you are concerned at all about the safety of your spouse if you anticipate you will die first, please talk with your lawyer, your children, or your financial advisor about how to use your estate plan to safeguard your spouse and their finances after your death.
- If you have pain medications stored in your medicine cabinet that you are no longer using, please dispose of them properly. If you need pain medication daily, think about dedicating a drawer that can be locked as the storage place for those medicines. It’s a good idea to clear out your medicine cabinet every 6 months.
These are just some highlights to think about and talk about with your estate planner, insurance agent, financial advisor and your family or close friends. The details are up to you, your family, your circle of friends, and your lawyer to sort out if you want to engage in planning to secure your property before and after you die.
Reporting a Theft
If you or someone you love is a victim of theft by a stranger, a caregiver, another member of the family, an Agent under a Power of Attorney, or Legal Guardian, please report the theft as soon as you have reasonable proof of theft or valid reason to suspect the misuse of funds or property (e.g. a bank account statement, a missing car, credit card bills that show high balances or increased activity that is not consistent with how the elder spends money, missing Social Security or pension payments).
Report stolen Social Security monies to the Social Security Administration Office of Inspector General (www.ssa.gov).
Report stolen pension checks to the pension fund administrator, to the bank where the elder usually has the checks deposited, and you can also call your state adult protective services office, and the local police.
Report ongoing exploitation or any form of abuse (physical, emotional, sexual) by a stranger, caregiver or family member to local police and to your state adult protective services agency.
Report suspected abuse of an elder’s banking accounts to the bank or banks the elder uses. The banks conduct their own investigations on fraud and also report to the police when they find issues.
Report abuse of a credit card or a fraudulent card to the credit card company. Usually you have to have the elder on the phone with you to do this directly with the credit card company, OR you have to prove that you are the Guardian or Agent of the elder in order to speak for them with the credit card company.
Please make a plan and take the steps necessary to keep yourself or your loved ones safe from financial exploitation.