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Criminal exploitation of an at-risk person

A sheepish admission from a grandmother that she had been swindled of her savings launched a Washington state stay-at-home mother into action and advocacy.

First, she had to get prosecutors to investigate the case and pursue criminal charges. Advocacy and lobbying for a change came as she started telling her story and hearing others with similar stories share they didn't know it was a punishable crime.

How does financial exploitation occur?

In our January blog post, we wrote about deceptive practices often designed specifically to target at-risk persons. Scams are also continually changing, but two effective variants include:

  • IRS tax scams where agents demand payment of back taxes with threats that law enforcement are on their way
  • Fake charity solicitations are another that prey on the urge to help especially after a natural disaster.

What happened in the Washington grandmother’s case was that another woman befriended her. The grandmother, an 87-year-old widow living on her own, gave her ‘friend’ approximately $217,000 in what she thought was a loan. But she was never paid back.

The ‘friend’ was eventually prosecuted and sentenced to prison for three and a half years. But in Washington there was no crime entitled “theft from a vulnerable adult.” The case was treated as an ordinary theft case. Proposed legislation would create a separate crime with stricter consequences.

What is the law in Colorado?

Last summer, Governor John Hickenlooper signed House Bill 1394 that clarified the definition of at-risk person.

Because the language used is important, here is what the applicable criminal section states, “A person commits criminal exploitation of an at-risk elder person when he or she uses deception, harassment, intimidation, or undue influence to permanently or knowingly deprive … the use, benefit, or possession of any thing of value.” This crime is a class 3 felony when the value of the thing is $500 or more.

Having a separate offense for the criminal exploitation of at-risk elder persons is a start. But many people are still hesitant to report fraud and families are not always adept at recognizing signed of exploitation.

The Washington advocate recently told a crowded room that it wasn’t just the loss of financial security, the woman “stole a part of my grandma’s person, the part that was trusting, confident, healthy, independent and proud of herself.”

If you have concerns that a loved one has been taken defrauded out of savings, contact an elder law attorney for help reporting the crime and working to mitigate the damage.

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