It's been called the crime of the '90s. The victims are trusting, isolated and fearful of losing independence. The criminal takes advantage of their trust and tries to cash out the assets the victims worked for all their lives.
The Los Angeles Police Department has responded to the proliferation of scams involving senior citizen victims by forming the Elder Persons Estate Unit--a division of the bunco-forgery operation. It's not just a "cops rescue poor victims, throw sleazy con artists in jail" story--the crime of the '90s is being fought with the police work of the '90s.
Detective Chayo Reyes is a 20-year veteran of the LAPD. In 1987, he was assigned to investigate the kidnaping of a wealthy woman in her 80s. As a result of the case, Reyes learned about the state penal code section covering elders and dependent adults who are swindled by people entrusted to care for them.
Reyes had been coping with one of the frustrations of police work--a sense of futility--when he suggested that a separate unit be dedicated to investigate the abuse of elders.
"Like all policemen--I wanted to make a difference, and you find out quickly that you can't. In fact, you're not even making a dent."
The Elder Persons Estate Unit was a turning point for him.
"In this assignment, you are making a difference by protecting the home and life savings of an elder, and I'm proud to say that the LAPD, in spite of all the cutbacks, recognizes the importance of the problem," he said.
The unit, in operation for seven years now and consisting of Reyes and Detective Dave Harned, gets 25 calls a day. It has recovered $27 million in cash and property.
Still, there are frustrations, the officers say. Offenders frequently serve short sentences. Of the hundreds successfully prosecuted as a result of the work of Reyes and Harned, only three remain in prison.
Their successes are gratifying, however, in part because of a close working relationship with their counterparts in the district attorney's office.
"We're a team," Reyes explained. "There are two of us, two people in the district attorney's office."
The unit is also assisted by FAST--the Fiduciary Abuse Specialist Team, a project coordinated by a Santa Monica-based group called WISE Senior Services. One member of FAST, Westside attorney Marc Hankin, is the author of a groundbreaking California law that allows victims to collect damages for pain and suffering as well as attorney fees. These sums can be collected by heirs even after victims die.
"We also work closely with adult protective services and the public guardian's office," Reyes said. "There's no way we could do it from our office alone."
Said Susan Aziz, the coordinator of the 18-month-old FAST: "Chayo Reyes is the true collaborator and an innovative visionary who is extremely tenacious and ethical and still gets around bureaucracies."
Aziz said Reyes' unit is the only one of its kind in the country. Reyes has participated in the training of 6,000 investigators throughout California, including prosecutors and, recently, bank employees.
Reyes brought along his partner Harned and Ardith Javan, the lawyer in charge of the district attorney's elder abuse section, for an interview.
Harned described con artists who prey on the elderly, saying, "They're good judges of character. They might follow a man home from church, for instance, and engage him in conversation all the while, filling the void of family members not paying attention (to the victim).
"The criminal says he's there for him. They feed on an elder's fear of being put in a home or taken advantage of by government," he said.
Although the family of the victim may be relieved at first that Mom or Dad has a friend, the criminal may alienate family members by taking over such things as answering the phone or by intercepting mail, maybe cashing small checks of $100 or $200, Harned said.
Javan added that the criminal sometimes has a partner or, in some cases, whole families who appeal to the elder person's sympathies by saying that money is needed to care for children.
In another instance, Harned recalled, a con artist said he was the son of the victim's deceased tax preparer, then obtained power of attorney under the guise of consolidating the elder's many bank accounts. In reality, the criminal closed out the accounts.
The victim eventually moved in with the perpetrator and the victim's mail was routed to the criminal's address. Property was taken from the victim's house, stocks were sold and the criminal pocketed the assets--close to $500,000--before anyone figured out what had happened.
The No. 1 scam involving older people, Harned said, is a telemarketing fraud in which a criminal obtains information about an elderly person's investments with a bank, then calls asking for money to cover fees related to a purported class-action suit against the bank designed to "protect" investments.
Such con artists typically request that money not be mailed, thus getting around federal mail fraud laws if they get caught. "Beware of someone who avoids using U.S. mail and requests alternate means of sending money," Harned said.
Offering such tips and arresting con artists are not the only reasons the detectives enjoy their work.
"We mark success by making the victim secure again," Reyes said. "That's where the team comes in; we plug victims into the mainstream so they are not isolated and vulnerable anymore. We address the crime, but what's equally important is protecting the elder."
The LAPD's Elder Persons Estate Unit can be reached at (213) 485-3797.