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The Fight Against Crime: Notes From The Front : More Seniors Falling Victim to Fraud Scams

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

A few months ago, Adam, an 84-year-old North Hollywood man suffering from dementia, met a friendly 23-year-old woman outside a local supermarket.

Adam let Kim move into his house and soon the two were married.

Sometime later, he found himself locked in his bedroom--and swindled out of $300,000.

“Neighbors heard him yelling, ‘Help! Help! I’m starving!’ ” said Ardith Javan, a Los Angeles county deputy district attorney in charge of the county’s elderly abuse section, which is handling more fraud complaints than ever.

Javan successfully prosecuted Kim earlier this summer. The woman kept a boyfriend and a baby secret from Adam and wrote herself and her boyfriend checks from her husband’s account. She also secretly kept a beachside apartment at his expense.

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Kim was sentenced to five years probation and ordered to divorce the man, who Javan had argued was not mentally capable of entering into a legal contract such as marriage.

Unfortunately for Adam, Kim did not have enough money to pay back what she had stolen, Javan said.

A few years ago, cases of fraud against the elderly were rare, Javan said. But in the past two years, those rare cases have grown to dozens annually.

Authorities say they don’t know for sure whether the increase is because more criminals are preying on the elderly or because more seniors are reporting the crimes.

“Some of these people are losing everything they own: houses, bank accounts,” said Det. David Simon, an investigator with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s Forgery/Fraud Detail.

One of Simon’s recent cases--a Los Angeles man who lost $73,000 to a caretaker--is just one of 50 investigations the Sheriff’s Department has handled so far this year, said Sgt. Barbara White, the deputy in charge of the department’s forgery/fraud detail. Last year, the detail handled eight such cases.

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Unlike Adam’s case, however, authorities say that most perpetrators do not marry their victims before taking their money.

The thieves are more often caretakers, stockbrokers, lawyers or neighbors. They work first to win the confidence of an elderly person, posing as a friend and then persuading them to grant shared authority over bank accounts and credit cards.

Victims usually do not have relatives nearby. They are often lonely or trying to prove to family members they can still manage on their own. They are happy to be in their own house with a “friend,” Javan said.

“[The victims] say ‘I don’t have anyone else to depend on,’ ” Simon said. “They’re just happy someone is taking care of them and start becoming dependent on those people.”

Often, the victims don’t have their full mental faculties, according to authorities.

When the thieves get access to checking accounts and credit cards, they begin to steal, say authorities. Thefts reported in Los Angeles county have ranged from several hundred dollars to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Authorities say elderly people should have a reliable person--such as a reputable attorney or family member--monitor their finances. Family members should contact local police if they suspect a loved one is being swindled, Simon said.

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Seniors need to keep in close contact with their family, Javan said. “And watch out for new friends who sound too good to be true.”

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