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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, May 21, 2006

Fraud, theft convictions just 'tip of the iceberg'

 •  Law makes it hard to protect Isles' seniors

By Rob Perez
Advertiser Staff Writer

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Financial fraud against seniors is considered a big problem in Hawai'i. Just don't ask how big. The answer is a mystery.

Few statistics are available to even hint at the scope of the problem. What numbers are available mostly are compiled by the state Adult Protective Services, the agency charged with investigating suspected abuse of dependent adults.

But the cases the agency handles represent only a tiny fraction of the problem, elder advocates say.

The agency last year investigated 55 cases involving financial exploitation allegations in which the suspected victim was 60 or older, according to agency data.

That number, however, covers only cases involving dependent adults, those with physical or mental impairments who depend on others for their health, safety or welfare.

The agency doesn't investigate cases involving seniors who are considered vulnerable but not dependent, a potentially large group of victims.

A recent report in a national white-collar crime magazine indicated that only 1 in 25 elder financial abuse cases are reported, and local authorities say that ratio probably would hold true in Hawai'i and perhaps be even greater. Victims don't want to cause a stir in a small island community, tend to be embarrassed or, if the perpetrator is a family member, caregiver or someone else close to them, might be reluctant to raise accusations of wrongdoing.

Some victims believe reporting will do little good, given the belief that successful prosecutions are unusual and restitution even more so, according to elder advocates. "People are reluctant to report when they think it's not going to go anywhere," said Barbara Kim Stanton, state director for AARP, the senior advocacy group.

Other victims fear admitting being swindled will raise questions about their competency, possibly leading to institutionalization.

Stephen Levins, head of the state Office of Consumer Protection, said seniors often are preyed upon because they are so trusting. "They are targeted all the time," he said.

The lack of reporting has contributed to the dearth of data, prompting elder advocates to cite anecdotal evidence to underscore the seriousness of the problem.

There's plenty such evidence out there. In just the past year, these cases have resulted in court charges or convictions:

  • A Salvation Army official on O'ahu was charged last month with trying to bilk a 77-year-old donor of $150,000 that was intended for the charity.

  • In March, a former Kaua'i attorney pleaded not guilty to charges he stole more than $370,000 from a 69-year-old client who had cancer.

  • In October, two people were indicted for allegedly using personal information obtained in a home burglary to commit ID theft and steal thousands of dollars from an elderly Big Island couple.

  • In September, a Big Island couple were convicted of stealing the life savings and home of a Hilo man who was in his 80s.

  • In July, an O'ahu woman was convicted of multiple theft and forgery charges for stealing thousands of dollars from a 60-year-old man who had just suffered a severe stroke.

  • In May 2005, a former trust company employee was sentenced to two years in prison for embezzling more than $70,000 from an O'ahu couple in their 90s and then using bogus credit cards to make more than $14,000 in illegal purchases using the name of another elder victim.

    Said Marilyn Seeley, former head of the state Executive Office on Aging: "You read about some of these cases and you know it's only the tip of the iceberg."

    Reach Rob Perez at rperez@honoluluadvertiser.com.