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Elder abuse will likely rise, expert says

Prosecutor tells forum attendees some victims take their own lives

Prosecution of physical and financial abuse of people 65 and older, and those with disabilities, will become more prominent as Oregon and the nation age.

“My prediction is that (abuse) is going to become as serious a problem in this country as child abuse ever was and domestic violence ever was,” says Paul Greenwood, a deputy district attorney in San Diego who specializes in such cases.

“At the moment, I think the crooks are winning — and we’d better do something to redress that balance.”

Greenwood, who set a career path in his specialty nearly two decades ago, spoke at an elder abuse forum organized by Washington County Friday, Oct. 23, at the Hillsboro Civic Center.

The United States is adding about 10,000 people daily to the ranks of those ages 65 and older, and Oregon — where that population was 582,000 of almost 4 million — will add more than 300,000 by 2020.

Only Deschutes County’s elder growth rate was greater at 31 percent.

“I find that you can tell a lot about a community by the way we treat and care for the very young, the elderly and the vulnerable — people with disabilities,” he said, paraphrasing a 1977 observation by former Vice President Hubert Humphrey on the “moral test of government.”

Reports are up

In its third annual report, released earlier in October, the state Office of Adult Abuse Prevention and Investigations said there were 38,000 reports in 2014 of the possible abuse and mistreatment of “vulnerable people,” up from 35,000 in 2013. Of those totals, 18,185 were assigned to investigation, up from 16,500 in 2013.

Financial exploitation and physical neglect led both years’ lists.

But Greenwood said such cases can result in violence and even suicide.

“When somebody falls victim to financial abuse, a scam or theft, it can devastate their lives,” he said. “We are seeing more and more suicides now, as people decide it’s better to end their own lives than face the embarrassment of admitting to their families that they had fallen for these scams.

“That is why these crooks are violent ... they are felons, and they need to be tracked down as much as possible.”

Starting with Ted Kulongoski, who established task forces while attorney general in 1994 and while governor in 2004, Oregon has passed some legislation on the issue.

Oregon lawmakers in 1995 enabled a “vulnerable person,” defined as someone age 65 and older or with physical or mental impairments, or that person’s representative to sue in court to recover civil damages against abusers. This is in addition to enforcement action by the attorney general, the state Department of Human Services and district attorneys.

A work group led by Reps. Val Hoyle, D-Eugene, and Vic Gilliam, R-Silverton, originated other legislation in the past three years, including an extension of Oregon’s statute of limitations to six years on the prosecution of some crimes against vulnerable people.

Greenwood is scheduled to return to Oregon early next year, when Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum plans a conference on the issue.

Washington County Sheriff Pat Garrett told the audience that because many victims do not file reports, police have no idea how widespread the crimes are.

Changing attitudes

“But I believe the culture is changing,” District Attorney Bob Hermann says.

A Washington County prosecutor for 40 years, Hermann said he once considered it difficult to pursue cases against drunken drivers — unless the case stemmed from a traffic death — or against sexual abusers of women and children.

He said social change has compelled the criminal prosecution of what once were dismissed as minor crimes, and that elder abuse will join their ranks within the next few years.

Hermann has a personal example to point to.

Nearly a decade ago, his 94-year-old aunt was a contract worker at an assisted-living center in Portland, where another person removed blank checks from the middle of her checkbook and somehow obtained her personal identification number and access to her bank account.

Hermann said that because of the work of a Portland police detective, the offender was convicted in Multnomah County, sent to prison — and ordered to provide restitution to his aunt, who got back most of the $10,000 she lost.

She died at age 102 last year. She was a graduate of Reed College back in the 1930s.

“She was a smart lady,” Hermann said. “But that financial abuse affected her until the day she died — more so than the money. She was so upset she got fooled. She trusted somebody who should not have been trusted, and it affected her ability to trust anyone.”

Common elements found in all elder-scam attempts

Financial fraud, whether the targets are people 65 and older or not, have common elements.

Ellen Klem, director of consumer outreach and education for the Oregon Department of Justice, says she concentrates on these elements even though she describes many specific scams in her presentations.

“It’s difficult for us to stay on top of these scams because they are ever-evolving and changing,” she said at a forum that Washington County sponsored on elder abuse.

But she says these are common elements of any scamming attempt:

• Out of the blue: The target receives unexpected mail, a phone call or personal visit about a “debt” that has to be paid right away.

• An “emergency”: Unless the target acts now, he or she may lose prize winnings or leave a relative or friend in trouble in another country.

• Personal or financial information: Posing as banks, health care providers or government agencies, scammers seek identifying information they can use to access accounts of their targets.

• Requests for money: The target is asked to wire money or buy prepaid debit cards, which are almost impossible to recoup once the money is transferred.

• Keeping it secret: Scammers ask the target to keep the transaction a secret from family and friends who might raise questions and see through the scam.

• Too good to be true: The mantra of consumer protection, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

Klem says consumer-protection materials have been translated into Spanish and Russian, and are pending in Vietnamese.

She closed with the example of a woman whose husband recently died and sought companionship via an Internet match site. The woman exchanged messages with someone claiming to be a member of the Navy’s elite SEAL teams, but lost $700,000 in the scam.

“Don’t think she was extraordinarily naïve,” Klem says.

“We think this will not affect us. But these scammers are looking for a vulnerability — and as soon as they find it, they are going to exploit it. Be aware this can happen to you.”

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