Originally published at New America Media
By Paul Kleyman
The sentencing of Edwin Parada in San Francisco this
past April for 24 counts of mortgage fraud against Spanish-speaking homeowners
spotlighted the growing incidence of “affinity” crimes — those perpetrated by
crooks against their own communities.
Parada — who promoted himself as a pastor — got 15 years for his mortgage
schemes, which preyed on Latinos in San Francisco, including numerous elders,
often with limited English proficiency.
Nationally, fraud against seniors is on the rise, according to the 2011 “MetLife
Study of Financial Elder Abuse." In only three years such crimes grew
by 12 percent, becoming a $2.9 billion problem.
While in half of the cases the perpetrators were strangers, one-third involved
family members or friends. The MetLife study showed that most victims were
women in their 80s and living alone.
Ethnic Elders More Vulnerable to Fraud
A 2011 report by the California Elder
(CEJC) found that African American seniors “may be up to five times more
susceptible to being cheated financially” than non-blacks. The same study
found, “Black and Latino seniors were more than 70 percent more likely to lose
their homes to foreclosure between 2007 and 2009.”
For lead author and CEJC coordinator Lisa Nerenberg, the findings point to one
troubling fact. “Elders of color,” she said, “have been especially hard hit by
Still, despite the alarming figures, financial crimes against elders often go
“It’s a silent crime,” said Helen Karr, a widely respected special assistant in
the San Francisco District Attorney’s (SFDA) office.
As part of national Elder Abuse Prevention Month in May, the SFDA is running a multilingual
public awareness campaign about financial elder abuse with ads citywide in
English, Chinese, Spanish and Russian.
“It’s so secretive,” Karr continued, “that seniors may not even know they are
being abused.” Depression, such as after the death of a spouse, isolation, or
perhaps dementia may increase their vulnerability to being victimized.
Others, out of a sense of shame, may feel too foolish to tell anyone after
being taken in, or may fear being deported or moved into a nursing home. Again,
as in cases of domestic abuse, cheated seniors may also be forgiving of a
relative in hopes that the abuse will somehow end.
Financial elder abuse covers a wide range of scams, acknowledges Sean Do,
Victim Witness Investigator with the small consumer fraud unit of the San
Francisco DA’s office.
Most insidious among the 350-400 cases his program fields per year, Do said,
are the affinity crimes scammers commit against those who share the same
culture and language. Violations, he said, might include home-repair schemes
(“I’m from the city” becomes “the city doesn’t pay for this—you have to”),
contractors being paid for work they fail to do, mortgage fraud, annuity cons
or other insurance scams.
Do came to the West as a refugee from Southeast Asia, finding early work as a
physician’s assistant for the International Red Cross. He speaks seven
languages and dialects (Vietnamese, Cambodian, Cantonese, Mandarin, French,
Danish and English), and is thus in a unique position to understand the heartbreaking
experience of many immigrant elders.
A sociologist by training, Do described a common ruse in which seniors are told
to pay around $5,000 — always in cash — to an expediter claiming to be able to
resolve immigration issues or perhaps to move them up on the Housing
Authority’s years-long waiting list for subsidized housing.
“The elder is told to hurry or you’ll lose the opportunity. They are taken to
an apartment and told they’ll be living there in about six weeks. But they
should not tell anyone,” said Do.
In another typical case Do described, a young woman who frequented a senior
center and befriended an older man. One day she asked him for a $1,500 loan to
cover the cost of a medical procedure. When he confronted her about not
repaying the loan, she said she needed more and eventually bilked him out of
Do’s unit focuses on mediation — turning criminal cases beyond possible
restitution over to other sections of the DA’s office for prosecution. After
finding the woman — and being threatened by her husband — Do says he’s been
able to recover $3,000 for the victim so far, with more to come.
He also recommended that senior center staff keep an eye on younger people who
turn up and seem to give an unusual amount of attention to certain seniors. The
centers always need volunteers, but staff should question the visitor and
seniors they focus on to discern whether their interactions are benign.
Don’t Give In to Fears
When Do speaks to neighborhood groups, he urges seniors never to let their fears
get the better of them and to talk to a community social worker or other
trustworthy source before giving money to anyone.
Also, he said, seniors who get threatening calls from a collection agency
should first refuse to give callers information, such as their name and Social
Security number — key to identity theft.
Second, he said, they should tell an aggressive caller to send a letter
explaining the debt — something collectors can only do if they already have a
person’s correct name and address.
Sometimes the collection agency is legitimate, but is calling for an amount
owed due to identity theft. Do’s office mediates with the agency and the
elder’s bank to get the problem resolved.
In California, such financial scams hitting seniors rose by 33 percent from
2006-2011, according to Erika P. Falk, director of Geriatric Assessment
Services at San Francisco’s Institute on Aging.
Falk said that of the 70,000 elder abuse cases -- ranging from battering to
denial of food and medication -- reported in California in 2010, a quarter
involved financial abuse. The actual number of such cases, she added, is likely
as high as 300,000.
“Victim Blaming” Leads to Poor Enforcement
Even though the Golden State has long pioneered the development of stringent
elder abuse laws and programs, a key reason for poor reporting of fraud cases
is “victim blaming,” emphasized CEJC’s Nerenberg.
“There are biases in the system,” she said. The author of Elder
Abuse Prevention: Emerging Trends and Promising Strategies, Nerenberg
asserted that family members and service providers “often think these people
made bad choices.”
Seniors, especially those of color, Nerenberg explained, tend to be stereotyped
as having been taken financially out of vulnerability to promises or greed for
rewards offered by scammers.
“But this is a crime,” she stressed. “Financial elder abuse is often
perpetrated by sophisticated, skilled and determined scammers.” Many are tied
to organized crime, Nerenberg said. Because the same people are often
victimized multiple times — due to their trusting nature, extreme isolation and
sometimes dementia — they turn up as easy marks on “mooch lists” that crooks
develop for their crime rings.
Even when perpetrators are caught, law enforcement authorities too frequently
fail to require restitution, Nerenberg said. “They assume the money is gone,
but these are not always deadbeats.” When prosecutors push for restoration and
judges order investigations, perpetrators are often found to have substantial
California, she urged, should emulate a Delaware program that pays restitution
to defrauded seniors immediately following a conviction, so the elderly person
does not have to wait an extended period to see lost money needed to get by.
The state then keeps recovered amounts.
Nerenberg added that service agencies and authorities also frequently shrug off
possible cases because they assume ethnic families care for their elders well
and aren’t apt to cheat them knowingly.
“People don’t necessarily take care of their own,” noted Nerenberg, “and
communities of color are especially under strain because of the recession.”
As for keeping up with the perpetrators, Nerenberg said, “Financial elder abuse
criminals continually adapt their scams to changing legal barriers and
opportunities.” Authorities, she stressed, need enough flexibility in the law
and diligence on the ground to keep up.
Those in San Francisco concerned about financial abuse should call the
consumer fraud program in the S.F. District Attorney’s Office, at 415-551-9595.
For other resources, see below.
Resources In “Blueprint For Action”
San Francisco has been a major innovator in combating elder abuse since the
early 1980s, said Erika P. Falk, director of Geriatric Assessment Services at
San Francisco’s Institute on Aging.
For instance, one
program has trained more than 500 frontline police officers to intervene in
abuse cases in partnership with the nonprofit Casa
de las Madres, which helps domestic-abuse victims.
In part, officers
learn to look for financial wrongdoing when investigating cases of elder
physical or mental abuse, and they learn to spot signs of battering or poor
care when looking into fraud.
San Francisco is
also one of four California cities with a nationally emulated Forensic Center on Financial Elder Abuse.
Because so many financial abuse cases fall through the cracks between law
enforcement and social services, these centers coordinate efforts among local
police, legal services attorneys, social workers, district attorneys, as well
as health and mental health professionals able to assess a seniors
vulnerability to scams.
Francisco’s laudable history of creating multidisciplinary units, such as
today’s Financial Abuse Specialist Team (FAST), said Falk, “both the city and
state are still failing to deal with financial abuse seriously.”
For example, she
cited a 2011 survey by the Legal Aid Association of California showing that
only half of victims in reported cases were offered nominal advice about
financial elder abuse and a third received none at all. Of the Bay Area’s more
than 50,000 lawyers, only 29 law firms list financial elder abuse as a
Falk teamed up
with Sarah Hooper of the University of California’s Hasting Law School as part
of the San Francisco Financial Elder Abuse Collaboration to produce a two-page
“Blueprint for Action” outlining the need to increase the system’s capacity to
respond to financial elder abuse cases.
The guide also
includes an extensive list of San Francisco resources to deal with financial elder abuse and contacts for both professionals and
members of the public.