Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Synchronicity, Plumbers and Elder Abuse

Yesterday, I was composing a laundry list of the various disciplines and professionals that have a role to play in stopping elder abuse for a book I’m writing. It included all varieties of health and mental health care providers, bankers, judges, clergy, entomologists (don’t ask), auditors, mail carriers, social scientists and many, many more.

In the other room, my husband was dealing with a plumbing problem. The sewer line between our house and the outside line was clogged, causing the water from my morning shower to make the toilet belch. It’s a problem we have every year or two when roots and vines make their way into a crack between pipes.

Several plumbers refused to give estimates over the phone, despite the fact that we could tell them exactly where the clog was, the length of the line, and the approximate time it takes to unclog. We finally agreed to let one come and take a look. After glancing at the front lawn, the guy offered to do the job for $165, considerably more than it cost last time. When we declined, he countered with $150, and we declined again. Ten minutes later, he was back, ringing the doorbell, and offering to do the job for $125. By then, someone else had agreed, by phone, to do it for $90.

An hour later, Dan and the $90 plumber were discussing the wily ways of home repairers. Things were especially bad for old people, the plumber told him, especially those with slight dementias. The biggest problem, he went on, was with “rooters," those plumbing companies that specialize in drain rooting. He had served as an expert witness in several cases, one involving an elderly woman who’d paid $9,000 for the same work we were having done.

Years ago, a prominent gerontologist suggested that elder abuse was a non-problem dreamed up by social workers to create jobs for themselves. It‘s gratifying that so many people recognize the problem today, see it as a community concern, and want to help. I wasn’t in on the abuse discussion, only hearing about it afterwards. If I had, I would probably have invited the plumber in, questioned him about his cases, and suggested that he present one at a local MDT.

At any rate, back in my office, I added plumbers to my list.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Elder ID Theft: Should We be Concerned?

Traditionally, those of us in the field of elder abuse prevention haven’t dealt with “consumer” crimes like telemarketing scams or identity theft. There was no evidence to suggest that elders were targeted, and some studies even suggested that elders were less likely than younger people to be victimized. Besides, our focus was on abuse by family members and acquaintances.

It’s true that only about 10% of victims of ID theft are elderly, but when you consider that over 9 million people reported ID theft last year, we’re talking huge numbers.

Like many people, I used to think of ID theft as a high tech crime committed over the Internet. But according to a report by the Better Business Bureau and Javelin Strategy & Research as an update of the Federal Trade Commission's 2003 Identity Theft Survey Report, “Fully one-fourth of the respondents who had been the victim of a financial fraud said they knew who had committed the crime, and in half those instances the perpetrator turned out to be a friend, relative, or neighbor.” The report further states that most thefts are committed the old fashioned way; the most frequently reported source of information used to commit fraud was a lost or stolen wallet or checkbook.

According to the Identity Theft Resource Center, there are 4 types of ID theft:

Financial ID Theft: Thieves use victims’ names, Social Security numbers, and other identifying information to apply for telephone service, credit cards or loans, buy merchandise, or lease cars or apartments. /strong>

Criminal ID Theft: Imposters provide victims’ information instead of their own when stopped by law enforcement. Eventually, when warrants for arrest are issued, they are in the names of the victims.

Identity Cloning: Imposters use victims’ information to establish new live. This form of ID theft is often committed by undocumented immigrants, criminals avoiding warrants, people hiding from abusive situations, or people who want to leave behind poor work and financial histories.

Business or Commercial Identity Theft: Businesses may also be victims. Typically, perpetrators get credit cards or checking accounts in the names of businesses, which find out when unhappy suppliers send collection notices or their business rating score is affected.

Identity theft is sometimes referred to as an “enabling crime” in that thieves use stolen identities to commit other crimes, including credit card fraud, immigration fraud, Internet scams, and even terrorism. Some thieves take out home equity loans in their victims’ names.

The following “ripped from the headlines” cases serve as examples:

A 100-year-old Tamarac (Florida) man's self-employed caregiver was accused of stealing his identity using his personal identification to open cell phone and cable TV accounts. The caregiver was charged with one count of elder exploitation and one count of using another person's ID without consent.

A home care provider was arrested on charges of elder abuse and burglary for holding an elderly man captive and striking him in the head and body with his own prosthetic leg. The suspect had been working for the man for the last six months under the name of her sister, a certified home care provider. She used her sister's identity to get the position. The suspect had a previous conviction and served jail time under her sister’s name. Specific charges included felony residential burglary, felony elder abuse, false imprisonment and preventing a victim from calling 911 by cutting the phone line.

A 57-year-old Anchorage, Alaska man pleaded not guilty to 17 counts of various forms of ID theft, from criminal impersonation to fraud. According to charging documents, he used an 82-year-old man’s personal information to obtain seven credit cards, which he used to charge $34,000 worth of merchandise.

In Tallahassee, a home health aide employed at an assisted living facility stole the identity of an 89-year-old resident and used the information to run up over $3,500 in fraudulent credit card charges for jewelry, furniture and clothing. She also wrote checks to herself from a bank account belonging to the victim and diverted the woman's mail from the facility to her own home. The case was investigated by the Attorney General's Medicaid Fraud Control Unit. The suspect was charged with exploitation of the elderly, criminal use of personal identification, forgery and grand theft.

Linda Foley, Director of the Identity Theft Resource Center, has pointed out some of the reasons why seniors are particularly vulnerable:

Some hospitals and nursing homes use patients' Social Security numbers as identification. Some even print them on patients’ wristbands.

Some seniors carry their Medicare cards with them in case of emergencies. And the cards contain their Social Security numbers.

Seniors are more susceptible to muggers as a result of their frailty. Which is one of the ways thieves get identifying information.

According to the Resource Center, recent widows and their families are at particularly high risk because ID thieves watch the death announcements, steal death certificates, and go on-line to the Social Security Death Index to get information about the recently deceased. Many take advantage of the fact that financial institutions are not always notified immediately of deaths, and so accounts may remain open for up to 10 years.

I shudder to think of all those years that we routinely advised elderly clients to keep their important legal and financial documents together in one place that was easily accessible in case of emergencies. Clearly, that’s not a good idea anymore and we need to re-educate professionals as well as seniors.

The few existing programs on elder ID theft have focused on educating people about ways to protect their identifying information. The truth is that it’s virtually impossible to protect yourself, and the best line of defense is mitigating risk after the fact.

But is it realistic to assume that frail elders can and will do so? One of the ways that ID thieves identify victims is by hacking into databases. Each time there’s a security breach, it’s followed by advice to those affected. For example, in 2004, hackers broke into a database containing the names, addresses, telephone and Social Security numbers, and birth dates of 1.4 million of California’s In-Home Support Service program clients. The California Department of Social Services, which operates the program, subsequently sent out letters to clients encouraging them to get credit reports and check them for irregularities. In May, 2006 the VA announced that information about 26.5 million veterans was compromised when a long time analyst at the agency took home data and his home was burglarized. The stolen data included names, Social Security numbers, dates of birth and numerical disability ratings. The VA also urged all veterans to check their credit reports and place fraud alerts on their credit files. Credit reports are not easy to interpret for any of us, let alone elders with impairments.

Perhaps a more promising approach is one developed by the AG’s office in Michigan, which was among the first to recognize that ID theft was a problem in nursing homes. After investigators discovered that employees, temp workers, and people posing as employees, were using their positions to get information about residents, the office started a program called “It’s MI Identity,” which tracks ID theft in homes and conducts routine credit checks for residents.

Ohio and several other states have enhanced penalties for people who commit ID theft against elders.

Clergy Against Senior Exploitation (CASE) Partnership, a program operated by the Denver District Attorney’s office, works with faith-based partners to develop and present training programs on elder financial exploitation (including identity theft) for clergy and older congregational members. A community advocate works with the program, to help individuals from the faith communities navigate the legal and social services system, and provides written information, including monthly fraud alerts, for use in newsletters and community bulletins.

Good starting points for learning more about identity theft, including ID theft of seniors, are the websites of the Office for Victims of Crime at the U.S.Department of Justice at http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/ovc/help/it.htm and the Identity Theft Resource Center at http://www.idtheftcenter.org/index.shtml. The Office of Community Oriented Policing Services published an excellent guide for law enforcement, which is available on line at http://www.cops.usdoj.gov/mime/open.pdf?Item=1271