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Elder abuse often involves scams and fraud

Reporter | June 22, 2023 12:00 AM

Financial scams and fraud are the most common forms of elder abuse according to Troy Downing, Montana State Auditor and Commissioner of Securities and Insurance.

He was in Polson last week, along with representatives from Elder Protective Services, staffers from Downing’s office, Jake Santee from Sen. Steve Daines’ office, members of the Western Montana Justice Council, and Carla Baker, U.S. States Attorney for the District of Montana. They gave a presentation on elder abuse prevention last Thursday at the Polson Senior Citizens Center.

The theme of the meeting could be “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”

Downing said his department regulates the insurance and securities industry. “On the security side we investigate and prosecute financial fraud – ponzi schemes, multi-level marketing schemes, and investment frauds,” Downing said.

“Looking at the crimes we investigate and prosecute, the lion's share of these are against the older population,” he added, which makes sense because many older people have accumulated capital.

Eastern Montana has an Elder Justice Task Force to protect and educate seniors. Seeing a need to expand this, Governor Gianforte signed an order to replicate their work and form Elder Justice Councils around the state.

To help with this goal, Downing’s office created a Financial Abuse Specialist Team (FAST) as a resource for people when they hear about frauds being perpetrated.

“The best outcome for the work that we do is not putting people in jail,” Downing stated. “The best outcome is to prevent it from happening in the first place.”

Some common scams

Downing mentioned some the things his office is seeing “that really scares me”:

• Romance schemes: People are lonely and looking for companionship, and they develop remote relationships. At some point there’s an emergency. The person might need a plane ticket or his/her house is getting foreclosed on. The victim will send money; and all of a sudden, the person disappears.

• Artificial intelligence: A person can take a couple of pictures of the victim, and then replicate the photos in different clothes. Now there are apps that can animate the photos, Downing said, and “They are very very believable.”

• The Grandkid scam: Someone will text or email the grandparents that their grandchild is in trouble, in jail in Mexico for example, and needs the grandparents to send money to rescue them. People have been told to ask to hear the kid’s voice. However, since every young person has a sample of his or her voice online via TikTok or Instagram or YouTube, the kid’s voice can be reproduced. “And it’s only going to get better,” Downing said,

• Pig butchering scam: Sometimes this scam starts as a romance or another affiliation, such as playing games online. The person will tell the victim, “Hey, I just made a whole bunch of money trading crypto.” There’s usually no pressure at first because the scammer is developing a relationship; it’s called “fattening the pig,” according to Downing.

Eventually the victim will ask the scammer how he or she is trading crypto. The scammer will have the victim try a trade with just a small amount of money and walk through the transaction with the victim, who will get a huge return. Then the scammer tells the victim to take the money out. Now the victim wants to make more money so they bet all the equity in their home and all the money in their savings account. That’s when the scammer takes all the money, “called butchering the hog,” Downing said, and disappears. “You never hear from them again.”

“We need to be diligent,” he added. “If someone needs you to send money, don’t make a decision on the phone. That’s the first red flag. If they ask you to send it as crypto currency, that’s a 100 red flags.”

Additionally, people trying to scam someone are very good at silencing that person, according to Downing. They tell the victim to not tell their family or their friends. So talk to your family, your friends, someone you trust. Don’t make a hasty decision.

“Call this number – 406-444-2040,” Downing said, “before you send the money.” Usually when the money's gone with a scammer, it’s gone.

Montana has the Lynne Egan Memorial Restitution Fund, named for the Deputy Securities Commissioner, who passed away in 2022. The money comes from registration fees for registered investment advisers and fines Downing’s office levies.

“There is a possibility of getting some restitution,” Downing said. “It won’t make you whole, but you might be able to buy groceries without worrying.”

Talk to someone you trust

Assistant United States Attorney Karla Painter also spoke to the group. Interstate wire and bank fraud is something the feds can prosecute, and includes romance schemes. Aggravated identity theft, or using someone else’s identity, will get a scammer a two-year minimum sentence.

She also had some scary statistics.

“Essentially over 13 percent of elderly people are victims yearly,” Painter said. “But only one in 44 cases is reported. Montana ranks sixth per capita for elderly folks.”

People can be ashamed to admit they’ve been duped or they just may think they’ll never get their money back.

Panter had some suggestions:

For elderly people, fraudsters may be door-to-door salesmen. Painter said her mother-in-law answered the door to someone who offered to redo her cabinets for a certain amount of money. She paid him, he did some work, and then he was gone.

Reiterating what Downing said, Painter said a good way to prevent fraud is to talk to somebody, a friend or someone you trust.

Beware of phishing scams, she cautioned. “Scammers want to get into your computer. If you didn’t expect an email or if you are not sure, just delete it.”

For elderly people concerned about cognitive incapacity, they should do their estate planning early and name a fiduciary through a power of attorney. That means the person is required by law to manage the person’s money or property for their benefit, not the fiduciary’s benefit.

Elderly people may be more trusting of mail so beware of fraudsters there. TV and radio can have scammers, too.

She also offered the following tips:

• There is really no program to protect a person from scams.

• The government will never call a person on the phone and ask for money or threaten you.

• Sadly, Painter said, a scammer may be a family member or even a lawyer.

• Hybrid abuse can happen when a scammer uses mental techniques as well as physical abuse.

• Signs of financial abuse could be social isolation or unusual changes in a will or a beneficiary.

• Check your credit report. Hang up the phone. Be vigilant. Watch out for your neighbors and friends.

Janice Hinze, western regional supervisor with Adult Protective Services, also gave a short presentation and introduced APS investigators Janie Hines, Stephanie Moran and Tom Wolfe. They look into reports of abuse, neglect and exploitation of elders and folks with disabilities.

This means boots on the ground, Hinze said, because investigators go to people’s homes. “We have to engage with people to get them to talk to us.”

They also work closely with local law enforcement.

If you, or someone you know, appears to be victim of elder abuse or a scam, here’s who to contact:

CSI FAST Team: 406 444-2040 or

Adult Protective Services: 844-277-9300

Office of Consumer Protection: 899-481-5896

Long Term Care Ombudsman: 800-332-2272