Above: A very real problem, elder abuse is preventable when families learn ways to spot it early. Image by Gundula Vogel from Pixabay.

At Atlanta Senior Life, we believe elder abuse protection is a serious problem in Georgia and all across the nation. This is the first part of a two-part series created to help elders, seniors and family members recognize and stop abuse before it begins.

What reportedly happened to Frances Perkins, a Marietta woman in her 90s, was shameful. According to a 2017 story in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC), she had been well-off, but ended up living in squalor. The article says dead rats were in her home, she suffered from dementia and she was stripped of her finances by people who said they were helping her.

Perkins had been moved from her Marietta home to a rehabilitation facility in Gainesville, Ga., away from where she could stay in touch with friends and family. While she was there, acquaintances who had manipulated her into surrendering power of attorney to them slowly took her assets. According to court documents, her caretakers “netted over $3 million in the guise of fees, rent payments, commissions, legal fees and other charges” over a four-year period.

How can this happen?

“They don’t use guns any longer,” said Law Enforcement Coordinator Joe Gavalis, North Georgia Elder Abuse Task Force. “They take advantage of anyone they can. Some victims are frail, isolated and lonely, while others may be retired and eager to have someone to talk to.”

Today, scammers are looking for non-cash transactions, like electronic transfers and debit cards. “There’s a jury duty scam, the well-known ‘grandparent scam,’ romance, tech support and even IRS scams,” Gavalis said.

Hands elders graphic
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

After a long federal law-enforcement career, Gavalis is educating Georgians about elder abuse. It’s a commitment with few benefits, unless helping even one family is worth his volunteering. He thinks it is.

One of many problems he sees is that email seems to give older (and lonely) people courage to “talk” to predators they don’t know—and even more courage (as in the Perkins case) when they meet a scammer through family members.

Education is key to helping people, said Gavalis. He stressed, “educate, educate, educate,” as an ongoing way to keep Georgians in the know. He has given presentations to over 3,000 seniors and more than 600 law enforcement and regulatory officials via the Elder Abuse Task Force’s nonprofit organization.

In addition, Georgians are becoming aware of multiple elder abuse stories stemming from the AJC’s 2019 investigation, “Unprotected.” Their extensive reporting shows statewide abuse and neglect from the very people who should be their personal safeguards.

What do elder abuse and neglect mean—legally?

The exploitation of at-risk adults occurs when someone intentionally causes harm or puts someone at risk for harm. Neglect occurs when someone intentionally or unknowingly withholds basic necessities or critical types of care.

Elder abuse can take many forms, such as physical, emotional, sexual or financial abuse. Neglect, too, can hasten death or cause serious health problems, perhaps from family members or caregivers. And there’s self-neglect, which isn’t a criminal offense, but frequently requires professional intervention.

One criminal problem seen with older adults in Georgia is “trafficking,” says Georgia’s Attorney General Chris Carr’s office.

Elderly trafficking doesn’t always make the headlines (when compared to sex trafficking or runaway teens)—and yet it’s an unforgivable situation no matter who’s involved.

“When elderly or disabled adults are moved from place to place in an effort to gain access to their financial assets or benefits, that constitutes “benefits trafficking,” said Heather Strickland, Assistant Special Agent in Charge, Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI).

She explained that it’s similar to trafficking for any other purpose. Moving people from one home to another, while depositing their pensions or Social Security checks in the trafficker’s account, is an immediate red flag.

It’s also illegal.

Fortunately, things are changing, Strickland said. Georgia’s recent authorization of “At-Risk Adult Work Groups” has helped. She was referring to relatively new legislation allowing Georgia judicial circuits the ability to establish “multidisciplinary (multi-agency) teams.”

Strickland said it’s “a cohesive way for law enforcement to help with elder abuse schemes.” Team members come from a variety of protective and enforcement agencies, such as Georgia’s Adult Protective Services (APS); Health Care Facility Regulations and the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities.

genetic test swab
Offers to test your swabbed DNA for free are often scams designed to get your information. Photo courtesy of TGA Communications LLC.

The team can discuss openly, within their working group, the cases of mutual concern, Strickland said. According to the GBI, the teams can develop supportive relationships and train their members to combat crimes against one of Georgia’s most defenseless populations.

In other words, Strickland said, “During the meetings they can discuss the details of the case to determine if it’s a criminal case or an adult protective issue—or both. But these situations are often more complicated than you would think.”

The genetic testing scam

A relatively new scam, designed to obtain a person’s Medicare information, is a “free” genetic testing offer. If you learn about a “no cost” genetic test (usually on the phone, internet or door-to-door) and the seller claims all costs will be covered by Medicare benefits—watch out!

“If you get a genetic testing kit in the mail, you can refuse the delivery or return it to sender—unless [you know] your own physician ordered the tests,” Strickland said. Medicare beneficiaries, who might agree to what sounds like a real genetic testing program—and provide or verify their personal Medicare information—may be fooled into believing it’s a gift.

Perpetrators are trying to obtain personal Medicare information. When the claim is denied by Medicare, the beneficiary (you) will be responsible for the entire cost of the test, according to the US Office of the Inspector General, Department of Health and Human Services (DPH).

Remember, scammers are detail oriented and technically savvy. Because victims may receive a cheek swab, an in-person screening test or even a sample testing kit in the mail, the entire process may look legitimate. It’s not!

The numbers speak

The latest financial abuse numbers reflect a jump from the previous year, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which fielded 39,426 complaints about impostors claiming to be from the Social Security Administration (SSA). Losses of over $11 million followed, according to AARP’s recent article on soaring senior scams.

Hiding in Plain Sight event
Hiding In Plain Sight: Elder Protection Forum in Tucker, Ga., Dec. 10, 2019. Left to right: Will Johnson, State Resource Prosecutor: Adult Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation; Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia; Jeanne Canavan, Deputy Chief Assistant District Attorney, DeKalb County District Attorney’s Office, Elder Exploitation Unit; Pat King, Manager, Forensic Special Initiatives Unit, Georgia Department of Human Services, Division of Aging Services; and Becky Kurtz, Director, Atlanta Area Agency on Aging and Manager and ARC’s Aging and Independence Services Group. Photo courtesy of TGA Communications, LLC

“Typically, fraud reports don’t capture the depth of a problem,” says the AARP.

Separate from the SSA statistics, the FTC heard another 138,548 complaints through the first nine months of 2019, for an average of 507 a day, totaling $28.76 million from January through September.

The Georgia Department of Community Health said one in 10 adults age 60 or older experienced abuse, neglect and/or exploitation in 2018.

Becky Kurtz, managing director of Aging and Independence Services for the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC), said about 12,000 varied abuse cases were reported last year in Georgia, including those with substantial financial costs.

In December 2019, Kurtz and her colleagues discussed what happens when an abuser takes control of a victim’s finances at a forum titled “Elder Abuse: Hiding in Plain Sight,” in Tucker, Ga. The program covered increasing abuse, neglect and exploitation rates in Georgia, and was held by empowerline, a group formerly known as AgeWise Connection, that helps the public learn about abuse prevention.

“Financial exploitation affects everyone—across all socio-economic groups, cultures and races,” Kurtz said, noting that abusers aren’t always who you might expect them to be. “And so many cases go unreported.”

One way to fight back, Kurtz said, is to stay engaged in our communities. “Someone who is active and involved is simply at lower risk for abuse.”

Fight back

  • To report suspected scams, call 404-463-3333, or visit empowerline.org for upcoming public forums in 2020.
  • If you’re concerned or uncertain of any type of elder abuse regarding people in private residences, contact APS at 866-552-4464 (866-55AGING).
  • For illegal or unethical long-term care questions, call 800-878-6442. If you’re unsure who to call, check with your local law enforcement agency.
  • If you’re approached by someone offering Medicare services for “free,” contact 800-633-4227 or 800-MEDICARE.

This article was written with the support of a journalism fellowship from The Gerontological Society of America, Journalists Network on Generations and the Silver Century Foundation.

Judi Kanne

Judi Kanne is a public health communications consultant and contributing writer to Atlanta Senior Life.