By Kyra Haas and Aviva Okeson-Haberman
Ken and Beth Bristow were trusting people.
So when a man calling himself “Allen Bobby” responded to their Craigslist ad to sell a digital piano, the retired couple from Nixa took him at his word. The couple expected $550 for the piano, but Bobby sent a cashier’s check for $2,050. When the Bristows asked why, he said he wanted them to cash the check and purchase Walmart gift cards to pay the movers who were picking it up. He said he wanted pictures of the cards with their security codes. That was strange, but the Bristows went along.
In the end, the movers never came. The bank said the cashier’s check was forged. Bobby cashed the Walmart gift cards and disappeared. The Bristows are among a growing number of older Missourians who have become victims of financial exploitation — either fraud by an outsider or misappropriation of funds by a family member.
As a larger segment of Missouri’s population continues to age, the problem is expected to worsen, especially since older people can have attractive financial assets. Banks are adding safeguards to address this issue, but recent attempts to make a legislative change have failed.
Elder financial exploitation happens when someone knowingly gains control over property in a way that benefits the exploiter, harms the elderly person or both, according to Missouri’s Division of Senior and Disability Services. Scammers will siphon money through any means necessary.
A recent Consumer Financial Protection Bureau analysis said reports of financial exploitation of the elderly quadrupled in the United States from 2013 to 2017, involving more than $6 billion in assets. The federal agency works to ensure that financial institutions are complying with laws and treating customers fairly. Missouri has seen a 35 percent increase in reports of abuse, neglect and exploitation to the Missouri Adult Abuse Hotline in the past decade, according to state data from a public records request. Financial exploitation is the second highest form of reported abuse, and it’s growing the fastest.
But elder abuse, especially financial exploitation, is vastly underreported. The Bristows never called the hotline, but they reported the case to law enforcement. Nixa Police are still investigating.
Experts say most people don’t report those incidents to a government agency that could investigate. But even when reported, elder financial abuse is particularly difficult to prosecute. Financial exploitation can be orchestrated from thousands of miles away, making investigations more complex and criminals harder to catch.
Unlike efforts to stop abuse of children, there’s less funding and attention focused on protecting the elderly population, according to several elder abuse experts.
“People tend to say we are running about 30 years behind Child Protective Services in terms of training, credentialing and wages (for investigators),” said Bill Benson, a national policy adviser for the National Adult Protective Services Association in Washington, D.C. The nonprofit organization works to improve agencies that investigative elder abuse.
U.S. Census Bureau projections indicate that by 2035, more Americans will be over the age of 65 than under the age of 18. So with a population that’s getting older, reports of elder financial abuse are expected to keep climbing.
On a chilly Friday in April, nearly 150 people gathered in a large room flanked by colorful stained glass windows in the Ferguson Community Center. Their Sharpie-scrawled nametags spelled out a range of occupations: state employees, law enforcement, elder-law specialists and financial institution representatives. They were there for a workshop on the financial exploitation problem among Missouri’s elderly population.
The morning opened with a reminder that no one is able to escape old age. “If we’re not seniors yet, then we are all seniors in training,” said Mary Tucker, a member of the St. Louis Elder Financial Protection Multidisciplinary Team, which helped organize the event. She’s also the director of elder client initiatives at Wells Fargo Advisors in St. Louis.
Baby boomers began to turn 65 in 2011, and about 10,000 baby boomers will turn 65 every day until 2030, according to Pew Research Center Social Demographics and Trends.
Wesley Coulson, a lawyer at the St. Louis area firm Coulson Elder Law, said people become more vulnerable to financial scams as they age. Advanced age, cognitive or physical impairments, social isolation, depression or being a non-English speaker can increase risk, Coulson said.
“Predators prey on the weak,” he said. “So anything that you see about something that is a sign of weakness or potential weakness makes someone an enhanced risk of becoming a victim.”
John Ellis said older victims were involved in more than half the cases he worked when he was chief of enforcement for the Securities Division in the Missouri Secretary of State’s office.
“Frankly, that’s where the money is, whether that’s 20 years ago or today,” Ellis said. “Older adults tend to have more assets than younger adults do.”
Bonnie Brandl noticed a lack of support for older victims of abuse, so she created the National Clearinghouse on Abuse in Later Life, an organization based in Madison, Wisconsin, that provides training and resources. Brandl said people pay more attention to child abuse and animal abuse than adult abuse.
“I think it’s been hard to sort of get in the door,” she said. “I also think we live in an ageist society, and we don’t value necessarily the experiences of older adults in the same way that the stories about pets and children pull at the heartstrings of people.”
Reports to Missouri’s hotline about elder abuse and exploitation typically involve people with close ties to the victim, according to a 2016 report from the Missouri Division of Senior and Disability Services. Adult children are the largest category of perpetrators, comprising 29 percent of abuse claims.
“I like to say that ‘close enough to help’ also, unfortunately, means close enough to hurt,” Coulson said.
Veronica Shead, a clinical psychologist in palliative care at the Veterans Affairs St. Louis Health System, said one of the misconceptions about elder abuse is that perpetrators start out with the intention of harming their loved one. Some perpetrators start with good intentions but begin to feel burdened by caretaking responsibilities, she said.
“Sometimes people have actually started off as very well-meaning caregivers, but they become overwhelmed,” Shead said. “Or there are people thinking they feel more entitled to resources because they had to move in with their loved one to care for them.”
When the perpetrator is a family member or friend, it can be harder for victims to identify and report abuse.
Lt. Andy Binder of the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office said police have to be sensitive to the victim’s concerns about giving information involving a loved one.
“We have to be very patient because it can be very frustrating dealing with an elderly person who is obviously a victim of a crime, but they don’t want to give up their grandson or granddaughter,” Binder said.
In April, when Catherine Vannier announced the progress of House Bill 932 through the Missouri General Assembly, the audience at the Ferguson workshop on elder financial exploitation erupted in applause. Vannier pursues cases of elder abuse and exploitation as the family violence resource prosecutor for the Missouri Office of Prosecution Services.
HB 932, sponsored by Rep. Holly Rehder, R-Sikeston, would establish multidisciplinary adult protection teams. The teams would allow prosecutors, law enforcement and Adult Protective Services to more freely share information about cases.
The bill passed the state House of Representatives but died in the Senate after failing to make it out of committee.
Financial institutions such as Wells Fargo & Co. have also taken steps to address the growing problem of elder financial exploitation.
In 2010, Wells Fargo Advisors in St. Louis handled about 30 cases a month from around the country related to suspected financial exploitation. Now, it’s up to more than 200 a month, according to Ron Long, Wells Fargo director of the Elder Client Initiatives Center of Excellence.
The bank doesn’t have the power to subpoena documents or formally investigate, but Long said the bank will notify authorities if something seems amiss.
“Our training is stocks, bonds and helping people succeed financially, but as this elder wave has developed, we do need more of these social worklike skills,” Long said.
Financial institutions look for unusual changes in account activity. If a client starts coming to the bank with someone new, or if they open a new account or start withdrawing more money, red flags may go up.
Law enforcement and legal advisers have taken steps to address this problem too. The goal of the Ferguson workshop and the proposed legislation was to unite efforts across disciplines.
“We have the obligation as professionals in responding to vulnerable people to bring these cases to light,” Vannier said.
Ken and Beth Bristow reported their case to the police and alerted their bank, but they haven’t been able to recover the money they lost.
“We’re not stupid people,” Ken said. “We were obviously dumb because we fell for this, but, you know, my wife has a master’s degree. I’m a graduate engineer.”
The couple live on Social Security and were selling the piano because Beth no longer plays after multiple shoulder surgeries limited her range of motion. They say they’re going to have a garage sale to recoup some of the money they lost. In the past, they never gave a second thought to accepting checks. Now, they only accept cash.
“And even that can be counterfeited,” Beth said. “So I don’t know.”