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Fighting financial abuse of seniors

Swindlers, family members and even professionals are the biggest culprits, experts say, and the problem is growing exponentially statewide


REVIEW PHOTO:  VERN UYETAKE - Seniors who do not isolate themselves and keep trusted, caring people close to them are less likely to fall victim to financial abuse, experts say.  After two and a half decades working in public and private litigation across Oregon, attorney Shawn O’Neil decided to take up work closer to his home in Wilsonville. He opened his own firm in the city several years ago, and solicited for a range of services, from business law to personal injury and governmental affairs.

But he was surprised to discover a need in the community for a practitioner willing to take on another sort of issue: the financial exploitation of seniors.

“Since opening a law firm here in Wilsonville a couple years ago, I’ve seen about a third of my practice involve elder financial abuse cases,” O’Neil said at a talk he gave in Charbonneau last month on elder financial abuse. “I was not prepared to see the amount of people out there that are being taken advantage of by swindlers, family members and even professionals.”

There are a number of reasons that older adults are often targeted, O’Neil said. People over age 50 control 70 percent of the country’s wealth. He also noted that seniors often don’t realize the value of their assets, and are less likely to take action against abusers.

Especially troubling is that many of the abuse cases O’Neil sees are committed not by professional con artists, but by the family members of victims.

“They stand to inherit, and feel justified in taking what is almost — or ‘rightfully’ — theirs,” O’Neil said.

A statewide problem

REVIEW PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Seniors who are isolated are more likely to be targeted by financial abusers, making programs like the Lake Oswego Adult Community Center's nutrition program all the more important. Meals are available at the center on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at noon (doors open at 11:30 a.m.) at a suggested donation of $4 for those over age 60 and $5 for all others.That sort of thinking is common in financial abuse cases occurring statewide, according to Billie McNeely, financial exploitation case specialist for Oregon’s Department of Human Services/Oregon Health Authority shared services.

“Oftentimes it doesn’t start out with ill intentions,” McNeely said. “There’s a sense of entitlement: They think, ‘This is my inheritance,’ or ‘This is going to come to me anyway.’”

McNeely notes a statewide increase in the incidence of elder financial abuse cases. Between 2013 and 2014, there was an 11.5 percent increase in the number of cases her office saw, from around 3,400 cases to nearly 3,800 (data from 2015 has yet to be compiled).

That number is likely low, McNeely said. She said one national estimate found that for every 44 cases of elder financial exploitation, only one was reported.

The average amount stolen in Oregon cases is around $25,000, McNeely said. At the same time, the state sometimes sees cases where as little as $100 is stolen.

“But for someone who’s on Social Security, that can have a big impact,” McNeely said.

McNeely said that financial abuse is likely to continue to grow as the baby boomer generation ages. The Oregon Office of Economic Analysis predicts the number of seniors in the state to increase by 175 percent between 2012 and 2030.

Banks are the most common reporters of financial abuse, and might notify DHS if they see an elderly person attempting to wire transfer a large sum of money. That might happen when a victim is targeted by professional scammers, which McNeely said happens in only around 3 percent of cases known to the state, as of a 2013 study.

“The banks have really stepped up and done their part to train their tellers to recognize financial exploitation, and to report it,” McNeely said.Hard to catch

But when theft occurs in smaller amounts over a period of time, it can take weeks, months or years before banks are able to notice troubling patterns. J.R. Oleyar is an investigator with Adult Protective Services, and is one of 10 investigators assigned to Clackamas County. He recalls a recent case in which a woman was told by a scammer that she had won $6 million and a free car.

“They said, ‘You have to pay the taxes and the fees, and then we’ll send you the money,’” Oleyar said. The woman withdrew thousands of dollars in cash, then mailed it in an envelope to the scammers — who then called to tell her that they’d made a mistake, and that she had won $60 million.

A pattern established itself, with the victim mailing money, and the perpetrator calling to raise the amount of the supposed winnings.

“She continues to stuff envelopes to the tune of $273,000 in a month and a half,” Oleyar said.

After 18 years as a Milwaukie police officer, Oleyar joined APS eight years ago. He investigates all sorts of abuse to adults, but estimates that financial abuse factors into 60 percent of the cases he investigates.

Oleyar says that his job is to help contain the fallout from financial abuse cases — keeping offenders from further harming victims, while law enforcement tries to hold the offender accountable.

“Our job is to bring a big box of Band-Aids and stop the bleeding,” Oleyar said.

While abuse by family members remains the most common sort of financial abuse Oleyar encounters, he’s seen the number of scams increase significantly, even within the last six months. Technology like the internet is making those sorts of crimes easier, he said, with personal information that can be used to impersonate law enforcement, a bank or a business much easier to come across.

Oleyar also works to educate police officers about elder financial abuse and the work that APS does.

“I hadn’t heard of Adult Protective Services for the first 13 years that I was in police work,” Oleyar said.

He speaks to police academy trainees to talk about the issue, and encourages them to engage with cases where financial abuse is suspected.

Making abusers pay

Still, it can be difficult to pursue legal action against offenders.

“One of the biggest problem the victim faces is embarrassment,” O’Neil said. And in cases where the abuser was a family member, the victim may not want to see the offender punished. O’Neil mentioned one recent Oregon financial abuse case that drew international attention after Gaston timber heir Ralph Raines Jr. lost an estimated $15 million over the course of a 10-year swindle.

Raines had been fooled by Rachel Lee, a self-proclaimed psychic, into unknowingly “marrying” Lee’s daughter. Lee and her daughter proceeded to extract millions from Raines, and even convinced Raines that he had fathered a child with his supposed wife.

Though Lee was eventually sentenced in 2015 to 100 months in prison and ordered to pay $15 million in restitution, Raines insisted that he was not a victim, and that he considered Lee’s daughter to be his wife.

It’s doubtful that the restitution will be paid regardless, since much of the money has likely already been spent.

“Once the money is stolen from the elder it is very hard to get back,” McNeely said. “In the criminal cases, most likely the judges will order restitution to be paid back to the victim, but getting that to actually happen is rare.”

Prevention is key

O’Neil says that prevention is the best way to address the problem of elder financial abuse, and he has been attempting to raise awareness in the community.

He encouraged attendees of his talk in Charbonneau to consult with estate planning attorneys, and suggested that they also bring in informal help to make sure that their assets were secure.

McNeely agreed, and said that family members of the elderly can help. “I like to tell people, as far as if they have an elderly parent, to keep an eye on them,” she said. “It’s a good idea sometimes to have multiple people at least be able to view the bank account.” She also noted that the Department of Justice helps to sponsor “Scam Jam” events around the state, which aim to prevent financial abuse by educating Oregonians.

At the end of the day, however, it is incumbent on seniors to get the help they need to keep themselves safe.

“You need to have trusted, dispassionate people around you to help you with financial decisions,” O’Neil said. “Most of the people I see, they’re all alone and they’re isolated, and they don’t have that.”

Contact Jake Bartman at 503-636-1281 ext. 113 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..