According to Georgia law, elder abuse is any intentional or negligent act by a caregiver or any other person that causes harm or a serious risk of harm to a vulnerable adult. It includes physical, sexual and emotional abuse, financial exploitation, neglect, self-neglect or abandonment. It might be physical violence, isolation, or identity theft or the theft or embezzlement of a senior’s property.
Unfortunately, the number of elder abuse cases in Georgia is growing. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation recently labeled the increase, especially across North Georgia, as the “Silver Tsunami.” Based on information from the National Council on Aging (NCOA), an organization whose mission is to improve the health and economic security of older adults (typically considered 60+), the abuse can take many forms – phone scams, Medicaid/Medicare fraud, home improvement scams, counterfeit prescription drugs, homeowner/reverse mortgage scams, lottery scams and, probably the most heart wrenching, the grandparent scam where a scammer calls an elderly person, pretends to be a grandchild, and proceeds to ask for money to be sent via Western Union or MoneyGram (which don’t always require ID to collect the money).
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation recently labeled the increase in elder abuse, especially across North Georgia, as the “Silver Tsunami.”
How It Happens
Typically, the scammers build rapport and trust with the elderly person, either through an unsuspecting child or friend or by presenting as a reputable advisor. In a recent egregious example in Cobb County, Jeffrey Carr befriended a wealthy elderly woman, Frances Perkins, through her daughter. Starting in 2009, Jeffrey Carr induced Ms. Perkins to “make an investment” in which Mr. Carr acquired 33 acres of Ms. Perkins’ real estate holdings, which he sold for $12 million. In addition to the theft, he also convinced Ms. Perkins, who was in her late 80s at the time and suffering mental deterioration, to pay him a 20% commission on the sale. Mr. Carr was also able to obtain a power of financial attorney for Ms. Perkins from 2011 to 2013. During this time, Ms. Perkins was hospitalized after a fall and Mr. Carr kept her from Adult Protective Services, who were trying to interview her after her fall, by moving her in the middle of the night from the rehabilitation facility to his parents’ home. In 2015, Jeffrey Carr and his father Joseph Carr were sentenced to 40 years in prison for stealing $4.1 million from Ms. Perkins.
But It Isn’t Always the Wealthy . . .
Though this example highlights abuse toward wealthy elderly citizens, wealthy seniors are not the only ones targeted. Seniors with lower incomes are also at risk of financial abuse. And, sadly, it is not always strangers that are perpetrating these crimes. In fact, per the NCOA, over 90% of reported elder abuse is committed by the victim’s own family, most often their adult children. Financial abuse often goes unreported and can be difficult to prosecute, therefore perpetrators consider it a low risk crime.
What Can Be Done
As was the case in the financial abuse of Ms. Perkins mentioned above (note, financial abuse makes up almost 70% of elder abuse and exploitation cases investigated across the state), forensic accountants may be best suited to ferret out the movements of monies, trace the flow of assets and highlight the financial methods and schemes used by abusers. In the Perkins case, the forensic accountants were the ones who determined the actual amount stolen ($4.1 million).
There are many things that can be done by professionals who work with or advise elderly people (e.g., attorneys, CPAs, money management advisors, medical professionals, bank tellers, etc.). Some of those red flags to watch for that may indicate abuse include elderly clients who:
- Are being isolated, inappropriately restrained or confined away from others, especially if that is a change from previous conditions
- Had valuables go missing recently or who had sudden sales of property
- Appear to be afraid of their caregivers, especially when transacting money or who are excluded from discussions about major issues/decisions
- Make changes to their power of attorney or make sudden changes to their will, typically naming a new beneficiary
- Present changes in mental capacity or function and are making major decisions regarding their investments, trusted advisors, or long-term care.
To help combat the rise in elder abuse, some counties have started establishing elder abuse task forces to raise awareness and provide resources in cases where abuse is suspected. In DeKalb County, the solicitor-general’s office participates in a program called VALARI (short for Vulnerable Adults Living At-Risk Invisibly). VALARI is a multi-disciplinary team of law enforcement officers, medical professionals and representatives from social service agencies who work together to provide comprehensive assessment of cases involving neglect, abuse and exploitation of elders and disabled adults.
Additionally, the solicitor-general’s office provides a list of agencies and other resources that can assist if elder abuse is suspected. See dekalbsolicitorgeneral.org/victim-assistance/elderdisabled-abuse.
Let’s Reduce Elder Abuse in Georgia
If you have elderly clients, take special note of their circumstances and watch for changes to those circumstances. If you suspect elder abuse, contact the DeKalb County Family and Children Services (404-370-5000) and be the first line of defense for your clients. As attorneys, you are their trusted advisors – build that trust by staying vigilant for signs of elder abuse. If we all work together to identify and combat possible elder abuse, we can help ensure that our aging Georgian population can continue to prosper.