Former nursing home administrator Martha Bell, a convicted felon paroled in 2013, admitted in an Allegheny County courtroom this month that after her release she stole $322,000 from a man in his 80s who entrusted her with his retirement savings.
The West Mifflin woman offered no explanation while pleading guilty — at age 71 herself and in a wheelchair — for preying upon now-deceased Richard Chatak of Mt. Lebanon.
She has hardly been alone in looking to victimize someone older — whether a relative, acquaintance or stranger — to enrich herself.
Keith Allen Bassi, who practiced law in Charleroi, admitted in federal court in October that he stole at least half a million dollars from an elderly client with dementia, for whom he had power of attorney.
Joelle Holland of Elizabeth Township pleaded guilty in March to diverting nearly $200,000 of her father’s funds for her own use while failing to pay bills to his personal care home.
Giovanni Palumbi of Harrison City was charged in October with stealing more than $300,000 that belonged to his mother after he took over power of attorney for her, an assisted-living facility resident, upon the death of his father.
Elder fraud crimes aren’t typically in the hundreds of thousands of dollars — pawned jewelry or ATM transactions without permission are more common — but financial exploitation of older adults for any amount is a key factor in surging reports of elder abuse across Allegheny County and Pennsylvania in recent years.
Reports of alleged abuse of all kinds harming Allegheny County residents 60 and older climbed 137 percent from the 2012-13 fiscal year to 2016-17, according to the Allegheny County Area Agency on Aging. The volume increased from 1,239 reports to 2,936. Across Pennsylvania, reports jumped 58 percent in the same four-year span, from 18,542 to 29,352.
In 27 percent of the cases handled by the county’s Older Adult Protective Services unit, financial exploitation was alleged. That trails caregiver neglect (33 percent) among types of alleged abuse — alleged physical abuse comes up in one of five reports — but investigators, prosecutors and others say the volume of such financial fraud cases has clearly increased in recent years.
A minority of such reports are substantiated in a manner that leads to prosecution like in the cases above, but at the same time, researchers say only a fraction of such exploitation is ever reported in the first place. Elderly victims are often in denial, may be confused by cognitive impairment and don’t necessarily want to seek action against relatives or friendly caregivers they care about and view as in need.
“For a lot of seniors being taken advantage of, they just can’t grasp it,” said Carol Catanzaro, a West View lawyer who has served as the Area Agency on Aging’s financial exploitation consultant for the past 10 years. A thick stack of folders in her office represents the 30 to 40 active cases she has under investigation at any time, referred to her by protective services investigators.
“It’s evolved into more than I anticipated,” she said. “I get a new one every day.”
Ms. Catanzaro and others say it’s hard to know just how much of the climbing caseload is due to an actual increase in financial abuse, as opposed to greater awareness and education that leads to more reporting. Financial institutions such as PNC, for one, are credited in recent years with becoming more proactive in identifying unusual transactions among elderly customers and reporting concerns to authorities.
PNC mandates annual online training of employees who interact with customers, in which they’re taught to look out for older customers who seem under duress or submissive in someone else’s presence, said Trevor Buxton, a fraud awareness and communications manager for the bank. Electronically, red flags arise when “a customer who does not have a history of making large case multiple withdrawals from an ATM suddenly does that in a short period of time,” he said.
More seniors, more opportunities
Aside from the impact of greater awareness, the number of older adults is on the rise here and everywhere. There are about 15 million more Americans age 65 and older today than there were at the turn of the century. By 2030, there are projected to be at least 20 million more than today.
That creates potential for many more financial victims, which research studies have suggested could occur with at least 5 percent of older adults. The amount taken from them totals in the billions each year, though estimates vary widely.
While a relatively small percentage of seniors have serious cognitive deficits from Alzheimer’s disease or other dementia, the natural aging process can harm many people’s judgment related to money in their 60s and beyond, said Daniel Marson, a University of Alabama-Birmingham emeritus professor of neurology who has studied financial decision-making among the cognitively impaired elderly.
“This isn’t to say that every older adult is vulnerable, but as you age normally, your brain ages like every other organ in the body, and your short-term memory, your flexibility, your problem-solving abilities, decline relative to earlier baseline,” Mr. Marson said. “That can affect your ability to make good financial decisions and can enhance your vulnerability to undue influence. Not everybody who is scammed is somebody who has Alzheimer’s.”
Due to their relative unfamiliarity with computers, their often-trusting nature over the phone and their willingness to open the door to someone with a shady home remodeling proposal, older adults are often targeted for scams by criminals. Some victims end up wiring money to someone making an out-of-country transaction that becomes difficult to investigate and prosecute.
Far more commonly, however, the perpetrator is someone they know. And more often than not, it is a younger family member, say investigators and researchers.
Anthony Turo, executive director of Ursuline Support Services, one of three agencies contracted by the county’s Area Agency on Agency to investigate elder abuse, said the financial cases are driven in part by a decade of increasing economic problems among the younger generation since the Great Recession.
He said a parent or grandparent may be “the only one with a roof over their head, the only one with steady income. … Not to take anyone off the hook, but we’re talking about a lot of families here that are in financial distress. They end up gravitating toward the one member of the family with a steady check.”
Impact of drug epidemic, dire times
Julie Capone, who heads the elder abuse unit of the Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office, said the drug epidemic that has affected the lives of so many southwestern Pennsylvanians in recent years has also resulted in increased financial abuse of older relatives.
“It’s amazing sometimes how much money has been taken before anyone has noticed,” she said.
Ms. Capone noted that at sentencing hearings for some perpetrators, she has heard them astonished at what they were willing to do to those they care about while in the throes of addiction. In addition to victims’ relatives, that has occurred with trusted caregivers paid — but not typically paid much — to assist financially comfortable seniors, she said.
“I don’t think a lot of caretakers necessarily start out that way — I think it’s just that they see an opportunity,” the assistant district attorney said. “A lot of times I’ve heard them say at sentencing they don’t get paid a lot of money, and they get desperate and have a drug or gambling problem — they’re trying to raise their kids, and they get greedy when they see the money. They say, ‘I’m here, the family’s not,’ and they take $20 [belonging to an elderly client], and then $40, and then $400.”
Some research has found that financial exploitation often overlaps with other types of abuse, having more to do with characteristics of the perpetrator than the condition of the victim. Socially isolated people with a history of risky behavior, including substance abuse problems or criminal records, are considered more likely to take advantage of older relatives, especially those they may deem a burden.
In the case of Martha Bell, who served state and federal prison time for crimes running a now-closed Robinson nursing home, she used a fraudulent business scheme to entice Mr. Chatak — an acquaintance she met through a mutual friend — to write check after check to her adding up to hundreds of thousands of dollars.
A former union organizer in his late 80s who had served on the Allegheny County Retirement Board, Mr. Chatak was not naive about money and there was nothing in his testimony at Bell’s preliminary hearing to indicate he was cognitively impaired. But he acknowledged his judgment was poor in giving away retirement savings to a felon who used it on casino gambling and shopping, among other purposes.
“She lied to me,” the widower testified less than a year before his death, in describing himself as a hard-working person who carefully saved over the years. “I just want my money that’s for my pension. I’m sorry I ever talked to her. I’m sorry I met her.”
Mr. Marson, the professor emeritus who formerly headed the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, said older adults’ judgment can be affected by loneliness, depression, anxiety or other problems associated with people who lose a lot of their social connections late in life. The risks become greater if they’re in their 80s, say, rather than their 60s.
“This combination of cognitive decline, whether it’s from normal aging or a true disorder [like Alzheimer’s], and the fact that they’ve accumulated greater wealth because they’ve been around longer — that is the recipe for exploitation,” he said.
Those with concerns about possible financial exploitation or other abuse of an individual 60 or older are encouraged to call 412-350-6905 in Allegheny County or 1-800-490-8505 statewide for followup by a protective services investigator.
This article was written with support of a journalism fellowship from New American Media, the Gerontological Society of America and AARP.