Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Long Distance Undue Influence

Last week, San Diego prosecutor Paul Greenwood posted a message to NCEA’s list serve about an “articulate, coherent and charming” elderly woman who’d sent over $50,000 to telemarketers in Canada despite being warned repeatedly that they were crooks. She described feeling “hypnotized.”

It reminded me of when Dennis Morris, a San Francisco prosecutor, came to a meeting of our multidisciplinary team more than a decade ago and asked if anyone knew of an expert in brainwashing. He was working on a case involving a wealthy elderly woman who’d married her 40-something accountant. The justice of the peace who performed the ceremony insisted that the elderly bride knew what she was doing but Morris knew things weren't right. We thought it was a strange request—nobody was talking about undue influence in relation to elder abuse back then. But someone suggested Margaret Singer, an expert on cults, brainwashing, and persuasion. Morris contacted Singer, who subsequently testified before a grand jury, describing the classic forms of social persuasion that the younger man had used. He was convicted in what became a landmark case, and Singer went on to write and lecture extensively about undue influence in elder abuse. The topic struck a chord because it offered an answer to a fundamental question in elder abuse: Why do victims do what they do? And, perhaps more disturbing,why don't they do what we think they should?

In the early days, we chalked it up to “resistance” or reminded ourselves of clients’ rights to act freely. But over the years, we’ve gained greater insight into the psychology of abuse and victimization. Major milestones include breakthroughs in our understanding of the intricacies of mental capacity, including the subtle and elusive “executive function.” Domestic violence theory and practice helped us understand power and control and the “help-seeking process.”

Paul’s case, I believe, involves “long distance undue influence,” which has been an interest of mine ever since Debbie Deem, a Victim Specialist with the FBI, convinced me it should be. Debbie has a burgeoning caseload of what she refers to as “chronic victims” who repeatedly send money to predators, most of whom operate outside the U.S.,despite warnings from law enforcement, families, banks and social service agencies. Some of her cases are wrenching. One involved an elderly victim who had a check intercepted and sent back to her by a wonderful program involving the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and U.S. law enforcement in Canada. No sooner did she get her money back than the scammer called and convinced her to re-send the check–inside a stuffed animal.

Debbie and I have been working together to try to get APS, legal assitance, elder abuse and aging network professionals involved. So far, we haven’t had much luck. It’s not surprising. These cases are daunting, and investigating them ideally involves sting operations, taping conversations, surveillance, international task forces, and other strategies that are well beyond the scope of APS or legal aid. Some in our field don’t consider these cases elder abuse because they don’t fit the classic profile: perps aren’t family members or others in positions of trust or confidence. But a closer look reveals that these guys are hardly strangers. Many call their victims daily, send birthday cards and tell them fake sob stories. To my mind, the only difference between these long distance predators and the sweetheart scammers who befriend elders in supermarket parking lots is that they’re smarter and less likely to get caught. Clearly, investigating these cases is best left to law enforcement, but many victims are desperately in need of legal and protective services including cognitive assessments, money management, advocacy to mitigate the harm, assistance with creditors, housing, identity theft interventions, and lots and lots of support to break their ties to abuser.

A recent San Francisco case shows what can be done. Attorney Nancy Rasch was able to get a conservatorship on an elderly victim who’d lost thousands of dollars in a Canadian lottery by showing that the client had been unduly influenced. Nancy, who has been doing groundbreaking work in elder abuse since the early 80s and has handled hundreds of conservatorship cases, shared Paul’s bewilderment about her client, who was paying her bills and managing her personal affairs just fine. It was clear that the conservatorship prevented further losses as the older woman continued to call Nancy asking her to release her funds because she was convinced that if she made one final payment, she’d get the millions she’d been promised.

Paul’s post has already generated a flurry of responses. One was from psychologist Gary Freedman-Harvey, who pointed out that “vascular dementia” impairs recall and makes it possible for others to “create” memories. Other researchers, including Jacoby, Bishara, Hessels, & Toth (2005) have also suggested a link between memory deficit and vulnerability to scams. Some of the best work in this area that I’ve found is being done by Doug Shadel and Anthony Pratkanis (http://www.aarp.org/states/wa/ and http://www.apa.org/science/psa/pratkanis.html). In the quest to understand why clients do what they do, long distance undue influence is clearly the latest challenge.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

My husband has been diagnosed with vascular dementia. He gets bombarded with money-making scheme emails and has fallen for a few of them. Can I legally block these people from his email account without his permission?