Mary Theresa the Fortune Teller
Earlier this week a 92 year old man walked into our office and asked for my help regarding an inheritance that he was going to receive. I sat down with him and he handed me a disheveled stack of papers and mailings. He explained that "Mary Theresa" (whom he claimed had made her riches from electronic fortune telling) had given him $18,000 from her estate and that he needed my help to collect it.
It was clearly a scam. Given the stack of 20-30 other letters he had with him, this was not the first scam he had fallen for. I talked with him for a while, trying to get some information about family or friends that I could reach out to. He told me that his wife and daughter had passed and that he lived alone. He was very confused and at every pause in our conversation he brought up Mary Theresa and the money he was going to receive.
As we talked, I was finally able to get his son's name and, after some internet sleuthing, I was able to contact him by phone. The son doesn't live in the area but was well aware of his dad's issues with "scammers." He shared with me that his dad had lost hundreds of thousands of dollars, nearly all of his life savings, to these people. I helped the son reconnect with Adult Protective Services ("APS") to try to get some help for his father. I also contacted APS and made a report.
This type of financial elder abuse happens a lot more often than you might think. Scammers target elders that may be vulnerable - those that are isolated, lonely, physically or mentally disabled, unfamiliar with handling their own finances, or have recently lost a spouse. The person targeted by the scam will often be ashamed, embarrassed or too confused to report the crime. Once a person falls victim to a scam, they may become more willing to participate in other scams to try to "make up" for losing money.
It is devastating to see a vulnerable person lose a lifetime of hard work and savings to criminals. If you suspect that a friend or family member may be the victim of financial elder abuse, I urge you to step in and take action.
What to Look For:
The following may be warning signs that a friend or family member is a victim of financial abuse:
Unusual or large withdrawals or transfers from bank accounts, or large credit card charges that the older person can't explain.
An individual who suddenly forms a close relationship with the older person, getting easy access to his or her home, money, and other property.
Newly executed documents, such as a will or power of attorney, that the older person doesn't seem to understand.
Changes in account beneficiaries or authorized signers.
A large number of unpaid bills.
Entry forms and prizes from contests, and payments made for "free" vacations or other merchandise.
Untreated physical or mental problems, including a dramatic change in mood or disposition, or other evidence of substandard care.
Sudden social isolation.
What to Do:
First, I recommend talking to other family members and the individual to make sure they are safe and that you have as much information as possible.
Contact Adult Protective Services - Adult Protective Services (APS) is the government-affiliated agency charged with investigating reports of elder financial abuse and offering assistance to victims. Here is a link to a directory of APS Offices throughout California - http://www.cdss.ca.gov/agedblinddisabled/PG2300.htm
Contact Law Enforcement - The police or local prosecutor's office will often intervene when there is evidence that a crime is being committed.
If you would like additional resources, you may want to read this brochure published by the California Department of Justice - http://ag.ca.gov/bmfea/pdfs/citizens_guide.pdf