Singletary: Investment fraudsters prey on the elderly

By Michelle Singletary, Columbian business columnist

Published:

 
photoMichelle Singletary

The fallout from the Great Recession plus continued job insecurity and a seesaw stock market all have contributed to people's fears that their money won't last. And this makes them vulnerable to investment scams promising better returns.

I'm always saddened by the stories of people who have been swindled. But there's something even more despicable when scammers go after senior citizens, who don't have as much time as younger victims to make up for lost money.

Researchers at Wayne State University collaborating with the Illinois Institute of Technology quantified what's obvious to scammers, which is that highly depressed elderly Americans are even more vulnerable to financial fraud.

In a survey conducted by the Investor Protection Trust, the Investor Protection Institute and the American Bar Association, 34 percent of lawyers polled said they are dealing with or expect to have senior clients who have been exploited.

Law enforcement officials in Miami recently filed charges against four men they allege were targeting senior citizens by selling stock in a Miami Beach-based company that promoters said had invented a new technology to be used by the National Football League. There was no deal, officials said about the case that is still pending. In all, prosecutors say the men fraudulently made off with $2.4 million. A lot of investor money was used to pay exorbitant commissions and fees, the criminal indictment said.

Could a lot of investment fraud be detected before seniors are scammed?

If the right people are trained, it could be. So the three groups have teamed up for an on-going campaign, the "Elder Investment Fraud and Financial Exploitation Prevention Program." It will teach lawyers to recognize investment fraud schemes and hopefully prevent their elderly clients, especially those with conditions that affect their cognitive abilities, from being ripped off.

A few years ago, the Investor Protection Trust released a survey that found that more than 7.3 million Americans older than 65 had already been victims of fraud. In response to those findings, the Trust partnered up with another group of professionals — people in the health care field — to teach them to spot senior fraud.

Now it is lawyers. The groups want to develop continuing legal education programs for attorneys so they can detect, prevent and report elder investment fraud.

In the survey of lawyers, 27 percent said that they deal on a weekly or monthly basis "with the children of older victims of investment fraud and financial exploitation who are either concerned parties seeking legal help for their parents or who are individuals accused of financial exploitation of their elders."

"Every lawyer, not just those who practice elder law, needs to understand how this growing epidemic may affect them personally and professionally," said Don Blandin, president and chief executive of the Investor Protection Trust. "A lawyer who is ignorant of elder financial exploitation may fail to protect the client from harm or unwittingly participate in the client's victimization."

You can also find resources through the National Center on Elder Abuse, which comes under the arm of the U.S. Administration on Aging. Go to ncea.aoa.gov and click on the link for "Stop Abuse."


Michelle Singletary welcomes comments and column ideas. Reach her in care of The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20071; or singletarym@washpost.com.