Expert tells how to spot, prevent elder abuse

By Paris Achen, Columbian courts reporter

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When an elderly woman who had lived frugally for years to save $500,000 suddenly couldn't make her rent after giving her son power of attorney, Bellingham police called Vancouver forensics accountant Tiffany Couch to track down what happened to the money.

Couch, owner of Vancouver's Acuity Forensics, has built her company on solving fraud cases for law enforcement, businesses and individual clients. On Thursday, she gave advice about how to spot and prevent financial exploitation of vulnerable adults without her help.

"The numbers always tell the story," Couch said.

Couch spoke as part of the Clark County Friends of the Elder Justice Center's fourth annual elder abuse conference, Building Bridges: Serving and Protecting Vulnerable Adults. The event is intended to educate the public about how to recognize, prevent and stop elder abuse and is geared toward law enforcement, attorneys and others who work with vulnerable adults.

Couch said she mostly works for clients who want to uncover fraud in their companies, but she has had an increasing number of clients related to personal financial exploitation, including of vulnerable adults and in divorce cases.

A number of external pressures, including unemployment, debt and other economic tolls, may give people an incentive to commit fraud.

"We can't control the pressures," Couch said. "The only thing we can do is limit an opportunity to commit fraud."

Fraudsters often rationalize their behavior, she said.

The son of the elderly woman whose $500,000 vanished later admitted to spending the money to pay off credit card bills, buy a car, send his daughter to private school, make home improvements and purchase other items, Couch said.

That type of fraud is known as asset misappropriation. About 67 percent of fraud is asset misappropriation, according to the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners.

The son, who earned a six-figure salary at his job, told police that he felt entitled to his mother's money because he would have inherited it after his mother's death, Couch said.

In fact, the elderly woman had been saving the money for the long-term care of her other son, who had a developmental disability, Couch said.

The son pleaded guilty to stealing the $500,000. He was sentenced to a prison term and was required to pay all the money back, Couch said.

"Fraud never happens from anybody you don't like. Never," she said. "Every fraud case I know has been perpetuated by the last person the vulnerable adult or business thought would do that to them."

Couch said she uncovered the fraud by looking at the elderly woman's spending habits before she gave her son power of attorney. The woman was so frugal that she didn't heat her house and subsided on inexpensive foods, such as Spam and macaroni and cheese. In the first month her son received power of attorney, her spending immediately skyrocketed by tens of thousands of dollars, Couch said.

Other behaviors that may characterize a fraudster include pushing others away, obsessing over maintaining control and spending beyond their means, she said.

She said in order to prevent fraud of a vulnerable adult, a third party who isn't the one with power of attorney should monitor the vulnerable adult's finances by looking at bank statements, canceled checks, receipts and bills.

The third party, who could be another relative or friend, should look to see whether the vulnerable adult's bills have gone up, identify all of the vulnerable adult's revenue sources and if possible, talk to the vulnerable adult about his or her habits, she said. Is the vulnerable adult paying for two cable bills instead of one? Does the vulnerable adult actually use a cellphone if there is a bill for one? Do doctor's appointments match the dates when a caregiver marks down travel or medication expenses?

"There are all kinds of ways people can get money from people who don't know any better," Couch said.

This year's conference was held at Southwest Washington Medical Center's Mill Plain campus in Vancouver. It has been free of charge for its first four years and sponsored by local businesses and agencies. Next year, organizers plan to charge a nominal fee for participation, said Dianna Kretzschmar of Friends of the Elder Justice Center.

In addition to Friends of the Elder Justice Center, the Clark County Prosecuting Attorney's Office, PeaceHealth, Vancouver Police Department and Clark County Sheriff's Office helped to organize the event.

Friends of the Elder Justice Center, an ancillary organization of the Elder Justice Center, was formed to provide vulnerable adult resources and support not available through the judicial system or Adult Protective Services. The Elder Justice Center was founded in May 2011 in the Clark County Prosecuting Attorney's Office to prosecute cases of elder abuse investigated by Adult Protective Services.

To report suspected abuse of a vulnerable adult, call the statewide abuse hotline at 1-866-363-4276.