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The fallout from the Great Recession, plus continued job insecurity and a seesaw stock market, have all contributed to people's fears that their money won't last. And this makes them vulnerable to investment scams promising better returns.
I'm always saddened by the stories of people who have been swindled. But there's something even more despicable when scammers go after senior citizens, who don't have as much time as younger victims to make up for lost money.
Researchers at Wayne State University, collaborating with the Illinois Institute of Technology, quantified what's obvious to scammers — highly depressed elderly Americans are even more vulnerable to financial fraud.
In a survey conducted by the Investor Protection Trust, the Investor Protection Institute and the American Bar Association, 34 percent of lawyers polled said they are dealing with or expect to have senior clients who have been exploited.
Law enforcement officials in Miami recently filed charges against four men police allege were targeting senior citizens by selling stock in a Miami Beach-based company that promoters said had invented a new technology to be used by the National Football League. There was no deal, officials said about the case that is still pending. In all, prosecutors say the men fraudulently made off with $2.4 million. A lot of investor money was used to pay exorbitant commissions and fees, the criminal indictment said.
Could a lot of investment fraud be detected before seniors are scammed?
If the right people are trained, it could be. So, the three groups that conducted the survey have teamed up for an ongoing campaign called the "Elder Investment Fraud and Financial Exploitation Prevention Program." It will teach lawyers to — among other related skills — recognize investment fraud schemes and hopefully prevent their elderly clients, especially those with conditions that affect their cognitive abilities, from being ripped off.
I know. It's a bit of a tongue twister but nonetheless, I like the mission, which is to create a national program that trains professionals to detect and report elder-fraud.
A few years ago, the Investor Protection Trust released a survey that found that more than 7.3 million Americans over 65 had already been victims of fraud. In response to those findings, the Trust partnered with another group of professionals — people in the health-care field — to teach them to spot senior fraud.
Now the groups want to develop continuing legal education programs for attorneys so they can detect, prevent and report elder-investment fraud.
In the survey of lawyers, 27 percent said they deal on a weekly or monthly basis "with the children of older victims of investment fraud and financial exploitation who are either concerned parties seeking legal help for their parents or who are individuals accused of financial exploitation of their elders."
"Every lawyer, not just those who practice elder law, needs to understand how this growing epidemic may affect them personally and professionally," said Don Blandin, president and chief executive of the Investor Protection Trust. "A lawyer who is ignorant of elder financial exploitation may fail to protect the client from harm or unwittingly participate in the client's victimization."
Soliciting help from attorneys — and not just those who specialize in elder law or trust and estate law — makes sense "because lawyers play such a significant role in advising and serving an aging society, especially around financial matters," said Charles Sabatino, director of the ABA's Commission on Law and Aging.
But you don't have to be an attorney to make a difference in this area. If you suspect an elderly person is being targeted by a scam, do something about it. Contact the adult protective services agency in your county or state. You can find contact information at www.eldercare.gov or call 800-677-1116. If you can't get help from adult protective services, try other government or law enforcement agencies. Don't get discouraged.
You can also find resources through the National Center on Elder Abuse, which comes under the arm of the Administration on Aging. Go to ncea.aoa.gov and click on the link for "Stop Abuse."
As I travel around the country, I see notices in airports and train stations encouraging travelers to report any suspicious activity. That mantra should also make us vigilant in preventing elder-financial abuse.
If you see something, say something.