June 08, 2020 Feature

Elder Scams: Protecting Our Older Adults

Christopher M. Carr

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Help the aging population avoid abuse, exploitation, and fraud.

Help the aging population avoid abuse, exploitation, and fraud.

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Supporting vulnerable populations, including older and at-risk adults, is an integral part of my mission as Georgia’s attorney general. Through the efforts of our Medicaid Fraud and Consumer Protection Divisions, our office has identified many ways to help older adults (and caregivers) avoid abuse, exploitation, and fraud, make wise choices about their money and well-being, and navigate some of the challenges that often come with aging.

Laws to Protect Older, At-Risk Adults in Georgia

Over the years, Georgia has enacted laws to protect residents 65 years of age and older, disabled adults who are 18 years of age and older who are mentally or physically incapacitated or have Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, and residents of long-term care facilities. Due to age and/or disability, this population may be at increased risk for consumer and financial exploitation, include taking away property or money by undue influence, force, threat, or deceit; misuse of financial resources for another’s gain; taking a Social Security check without consent; having a power of attorney document or other documents signed without the victim knowing what he or she is signing; forging a signature; offering a “prize” that the victim has won, but must pay money to claim; and eliciting support for phony charities.

The State of Georgia enacted in 2017 the Uniform Power of Attorney Act to protect citizens from those who misuse their fiscal responsibility. Additionally, in 2018, the Georgia General Assembly passed a law to prohibit trafficking of older, at-risk adults. In conjunction with the District Attorney for DeKalb County, Georgia, our office recently initiated the first prosecution statewide using this new law.

Importantly, Georgia law requires certain groups of people to report when they suspect abuse, neglect, or exploitation. These mandated reporters, such as licensed professional counselors and employees of financial institutions or nursing care homes, must make a report when they have a reasonable cause to believe that an at-risk adult (1) has had an injury or injuries inflicted upon them by a caretaker or (2) has been neglected or exploited by a caretaker. Mandated reporters who do not fulfill their obligation to report elder or disabled adult abuse may be charged with a misdemeanor. All other parties are encouraged to make reports if they believe that a disabled adult or elder person needs protective services or has been the victim of abuse, neglect, or exploitation.

Anyone who makes a report of fraud, testifies in any judicial proceeding, assists protective services, or participates in a required investigation is immune from any civil or criminal liability as a result of such report, testimony, or participation, unless such person acted in bad faith or with a malicious purpose, or was a party to such crime or fraud. Mandated reporters must report suspected abuse to both Adult Protective Services and to law enforcement.

Medicaid Fraud Division at Work for Older Georgians

Georgia’s Medicaid Fraud Division investigates and prosecutes fraud and abuse by providers in the Georgia Medicaid program and protects vulnerable patients from exploitation of all kinds. Since 2016, we have prioritized investigations and prosecutions concerning unlicensed personal care homes and those who seek to manipulate the benefits of our older, at-risk Georgians.

An example of one of our larger and more complex cases began in December 2017. Since the beginning of this case, our office has charged four individuals in an 80-count indictment that includes such violations as neglect to a disabled adult, elder person, or resident; exploitation and intimidation of a disabled adult, elder person, or resident; operating an unlicensed personal care home; and violations of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. As contained in the indictment, the individuals created a systematic elder abuse scheme. Their respective, alleged roles are described below:

Unlicensed personal care homeowner. On September 20, 2017, Michelle Oliver, 39, was arrested for operating an unlicensed personal care home by the name of Miracle One Care Center, Inc.

In July 2017, prior to her arrest, concerned residents in Albany, Georgia, informed authorities that people living in nearby apartments rented by Oliver were begging for food. An investigation by state and local agencies led to executing search warrants on Oliver’s various apartments in Albany. The units were condemned by Albany Code Enforcement because of the living conditions. Seven elderly and/or disabled adults were triaged by Dougherty County, Georgia EMS, and the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities (DBHDD), and the individuals were relocated to licensed facilities.

State and local authorities also executed a search warrant at Oliver’s residence where she was taken into custody. Four elderly and/or disabled adults, who were also living at the house, were relocated to licensed facilities.

During the execution of the search warrants, it was learned that a residence in Bibb County may have also housed victims of Oliver. As a result of this information, authorities found three additional elderly and/or disabled persons who were victims of Oliver at an apartment in Macon, Georgia. The three individuals were also relocated.

Social Security payee. Harold Hunt was arrested in December 2017. Hunt, 56, was taken into custody at his residence in Suwanee, Georgia. As part of the scheme, Hunt would assist Oliver in obtaining Social Security benefits for residents. Hunt would then act as residents’ Social Security payee, sending money belonging to the residents to Oliver and keeping funds for himself as well. Both Oliver and Hunt were depriving the residents of health care, shelter, and necessary sustenance and financially exploiting the individuals.

Nurse practitioner. Cynthia Riley was arrested in January 2017. Riley was taken into custody in Moncks Corner, South Carolina, with assistance from the Berkeley County Sheriff Office, the U.S. Marshals Service, and the South Carolina Office of the Attorney General’s Medicaid Fraud Control Division. According to residents, Oliver would transport residents to Riley, who would give them injections of psychotropic medications and various prescriptions. The residents reported they did not receive any other psychological or medical care. The investigation also revealed that Riley would fill out and deliver to Oliver and Hunt medical forms necessary for Oliver and Hunt to sign up residents for government benefits that Hunt and Oliver would keep for themselves.

Oliver, Hunt, and Riley, along with an additional defendant added later, are all currently awaiting trial on the above allegations.

Why Are Older Adults Targeted?

Unfortunately, older and at-risk adults are targeted by scammers who view them as particularly vulnerable to abuse and fraudulent and deceptive schemes. Georgia’s Consumer Protection Division works daily to educate and protect older adults from those who seek to manipulate them. Through this work, we have seen that scammers like to target older adults because they are frequently home during the day, may be too polite to hang up the phone or turn away a solicitor, and often have accumulated wealth for their retirement. They also may be lonely and therefore more apt to welcome a call from a stranger and engage in conversation with him or her. A person suffering from dementia or even mild cognitive impairment is particularly vulnerable to scammers.

Red Flags of a Scam

We have found that knowledge is the best defense against scams. It is critically important to speak to seniors about the importance of protecting their personal and financial information and make sure they are familiar with scams that frequently target seniors, as well as common red flags that may indicate a scam, including:

  • Being asked to pay money in order to receive a prize or a job;
  • Pressure to act immediately;
  • Use of scare tactics, such as telling elders that a loved one is in danger or that their computer has been hacked, or threatening arrest if they don’t act now;
  • Insistence that the elder pay via gift card or wire transfer;
  • Get-rich-quick and other promises that sound too good to be true;
  • Receiving a check and being asked to send back a portion of the amount;
  • A call purporting to be from a government entity or law enforcement agency, asking elders to pay money, disclose their Social Security number, or provide information about their financial accounts; and
  • Promises to recover money the elder has lost in other scams, for a fee.

Coronavirus Scams

Recently, scammers have seized on the coronavirus pandemic to take advantage of consumers through malicious e-mails and phony promises about coronavirus and COVID-19 treatments, at-home test kits, investment opportunities, charities, and more.

Below are tips on how to avoid this particular strand of scams:

  • Don’t click on links from sources you don’t know. It could download a virus onto your computer or device. Make sure the anti-malware and anti-virus programs on your computer are up-to-date.
  • Watch for e-mails claiming to be from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or experts saying they have information about the virus. For the most up-to-date information about the coronavirus, visit the official websites of the CDC (https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html) and the World Health Organization (https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019).
  • Ignore online offers for vaccinations. There currently are no vaccines, pills, potions, lotions, lozenges, or other prescription or over-the-counter products available to treat coronavirus or COVID-19—online or in stores.
  • Ignore messages about at-home COVID-19 test kits. As of this writing, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not authorized any test that is available to purchase for testing yourself at home for COVID-19.
  • Do your homework when it comes to donations, whether through charities or crowdfunding sites. Don’t let anyone rush you into donating. If someone wants donations in cash, by gift card, or by wiring money, don’t do it.
  • Be alert to “investment opportunities.” The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission is warning people about online promotions, including on social media, claiming that the products or services of publicly traded companies can prevent, detect, or cure coronavirus/COVID-19 and that the stock of these companies will dramatically increase in value as a result.
  • Hang up on robocalls. Don’t press any numbers. Scammers are using illegal robocalls to pitch everything from scam coronavirus treatments to work-at-home schemes. The recording might say that pressing a number will let you speak to a live operator or remove you from their call list, but it might lead to more robocalls instead.
  • Fact-check information. Scammers, and sometimes well-meaning people, share information that hasn’t been verified. Before you pass on any messages, contact trusted sources. Visit the U.S. government web page Government Response to Coronavirus, COVID-19 (https://www.usa.gov/coronavirus) for links to federal, state, and local government agencies.
  • Don’t respond to texts, phone calls, or e-mails about the Internal Revenue Service stimulus checks from the government. No government agency will contact you in this way asking for personal or financial information in order to receive federal stimulus payments, and no action is required for most people, including Social Security recipients, to receive these payments. For more information, go to https://www.irs.gov/coronavirus.
  • Be wary of retailers and online resellers charging exorbitant prices for groceries and health-related items. Compare prices before making a purchase, and report suspected price gouging or unfair practices to the attorney general’s consumer protection division of your state.

Genetic Testing Scams

We are also becoming increasingly concerned about a genetic testing scam that is making its way throughout Georgia. Unfortunately, victims taken in by this scheme are often providing sensitive personal information, including insurance and financial information, that could be misused in a number of ways. We want Georgians to be aware that we are seeing more and more of this activity, so they can spot the warning signs and share this information with friends and family members.

Most of these scams follow a similar pattern. Consumers are approached by individuals at their homes, health fairs, and residential facilities, or through telemarketing calls. The more sinister con artists will even prey on the homeless by making personal visits to their tent or other temporary places of residence. The scammers offer to provide genetic testing, frequently playing into fears about serious diseases such as cancer, dementia, or heart disease. Consumers are also told that their insurance will pay for it. Some scammers are even offering individuals cash for consenting to the sample. Then they either take a swab from inside the person’s mouth, or they tell the person that a test kit will be mailed or hand-delivered to them. The con artists are targeting older Georgians, informing these victims that Medicare or Medicaid will be billed for this service and that it will be “free” to them.

Ongoing Support for Older, At-Risk Adults

The Georgia Office of Attorney General will continue supporting our seniors—through educating and empowering seniors with information and investigating and prosecuting those who seek to exploit them. It will remain a critical part of our overall mission, and we appreciate all who are also working to do the same.

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Christopher M. Carr

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Christopher M. Carr was appointed by Governor Nathan Deal and sworn into office as Georgia’s 54th attorney general on November 1, 2016. On November 6, 2018, he was elected to serve a full four-year term. To help prevent our older, at-risk adults from falling victim to scams, Carr created the Georgia Consumer Protection Guide for Older Adults, and he works every day to make sure older, at-risk adults and all consumers are protected from exploitation.

Published in GPSolo, Volume 37,  Number 3, May/June 2020. © 2020 by the American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the American Bar Association or the Solo, Small Firm and General Practice Division.