- Luke Eastman
Candace Pratt of Williston has known "Elsie" her entire life. Elsie and Pratt's mother met as schoolmates more than 75 years ago and remained friends, celebrating birthdays, holidays and other milestones together. So when Elsie's husband, "Robert," died suddenly two years ago, Pratt, her sisters and their mother rushed to Elsie's side.
At Robert's wake, Elsie seemed confused and disoriented, Pratt recalled; at one point, she asked her friend who had died. Pratt, a registered nurse since 1979 with years of hospice care experience, immediately recognized that the 84-year-old woman was in shock.
After the wake, Pratt asked Elsie's son, "Richard," about his plans for his mother. (Elsie's, Robert's and Richard's real names have been changed for legal and privacy reasons.) Because Robert had a successful family business and owned multiple properties, Elsie had the financial resources to keep living in her central Vermont home — and had repeatedly told friends she wanted to do so, Pratt emphasized.
Elsie had minor short-term memory loss, Pratt said, but did not suffer from Alzheimer's disease or another form of dementia. Because Richard had been estranged from his mother and lived out of state, Pratt, her sisters and their mother, all nurses, volunteered to care for Elsie — for free — in her own home. For weeks, they took Elsie to doctor's appointments, bought her groceries and kept Elsie's son apprised of their activities. Pratt documented everything in writing for Richard.
"I had no worries that he would do what's best for his mom," Pratt recalled. "I was so wrong."
Only later would Pratt learn that, just days after Robert's death, Richard had convinced his mother to sign a power of attorney giving him complete control of her finances. The document was executed in the town clerk's office without her lawyer present. She soon lost control of her money, and her independence.
Stories like this are nothing new to Victoria Lloyd. A former investigator for Vermont's Adult Protective Services, Lloyd spent years looking into allegations of financial abuse of older and vulnerable adults. In 2013, after the state disbanded its financial exploitation unit, she left her government job and founded FAST of Vermont, based in White River Junction.
Most Vermonters know where to call when their house is on fire, they get burglarized or a family member experiences chest pains. Not so many know where to turn when they or an elderly friend or relative gets scammed out of their federal stimulus check or unwittingly reveals their Social Security number in response to an email phishing scheme.
FAST — or Financial Abuse Specialist Team — aims to change that. The group of professionals includes representatives of the Vermont Attorney General's Office, the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Vermont, the Federal Bureau of Investigations, Adult Protective Services, Vermont Legal Aid, the Vermont Association of Area Agencies on Aging, the Community of Vermont Elders, Vermont 2-1-1, and local banks and credit unions. The team meets monthly and investigates allegations of fraud and financial abuse, particularly those targeting older Vermonters. It also educates members of the public on how to protect themselves.
The frequency of such cases is difficult to measure, Lloyd said, because organizations and government agencies use different definitions.
"That's one of our biggest challenges," she said. "We can't create programs and a coordinated effort to address these issues if we don't have good data."
But a report released on March 17 by the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center hints at the scale of the problem, which has only worsened during the pandemic. In 2020, the FBI received more than 28,500 complaints nationwide related to COVID-19 scams alone. A state-by-state breakdown of all internet crimes revealed that Vermonters 60 and older were defrauded more than any other age group — to the tune of more than $1.6 million in 2020.
Lloyd groups financial exploitation into two broad categories: crimes committed by strangers to the victim — many linked to organized crime networks — and crimes committed by people the victim knows or even loves, as in Elsie's case.
Among the more common ploys in the first category are romance scams, which target emotionally vulnerable adults, such as seniors who recently lost a partner or live alone. Typically, the victim meets the perpetrator on a social media or dating platform, and the relationship quickly moves to private communications such as phone calls and emails.
"There's this relationship by the impostor built on a mountain of lies to induce the victim to give them money," Lloyd explained.
The scammers, many of whom profess their eternal love for the victim, will suddenly claim to be in dire financial straits or stuck in a foreign country in need of a plane ticket home. These elaborate stories and emotional manipulation can ensnare the victim into forking over thousands of dollars, Lloyd said.
Then there are the get-rich-quick ploys. Intricate confidence schemes are especially attractive to older adults, Lloyd said, such as retired men who still want to work and to leave their family a financial legacy.
Lloyd saw one such scam firsthand. Her then-70-year-old father, who was retired and in cognitive decline, was lured into investing in online computer sales despite his scant knowledge of information technology. Though her father had run his own manufacturing company, Lloyd said, he had no idea how vulnerable he was to internet predators.
Many older victims are slow to acknowledge that they've been ripped off, Lloyd noted — her father among them.
"Forty thousand dollars later, he still would not admit that it was a scam," she said.
Often victims feel humiliated, mistakenly assuming that only naïve and uneducated people get victimized. But, Lloyd pointed out, financial exploitation happens to people of every socioeconomic status and education level. Nationally, it's estimated that one in 10 Americans older than 60 becomes a victim of some form of financial abuse. Most of those cases go unreported.
Not all of that financial exploitation is perpetrated by strangers, nor does it all fall neatly into the category of criminal activity. Family members, friends, neighbors, caregivers and other trusted associates may take advantage of the trust they're given.
No one was ever criminally charged in Elsie's case. But, looking back, Pratt said she now recognizes the signs of financial exploitation. They included the overuse of Elsie's sedatives — which, as a nurse, Pratt reported to Elsie's physician — and Richard's frequent remarks about his need for money.
Pratt remembers sitting at Elsie's kitchen table weeks after Robert's funeral. Elsie was smiling and seemed to be returning to her old self — until her son came into the room and berated her. He threatened to sell her house and all of her property and belongings, then move her into a nursing home. All of the women at the table were speechless.
"She didn't know what hit her," Pratt recalled. Later that evening, Elsie said something that haunts Pratt to this day.
"She stopped dead in her tracks, looked me in the eye and said, 'He is after my money!'" Pratt said.
The following morning, Pratt's sister arrived at Elsie's house and found it locked and Elsie's van gone. After days with no word from her, they learned Elsie had been moved to a nursing facility out of state, with no notes or goodbyes to her lifelong friends. Pratt hasn't seen or heard from Elsie since.
"Not that I haven't tried," she said. For two years, Pratt attempted repeatedly to reach Elsie by phone and certified mail. Her mother and sister even flew south to visit the nursing home, where staff informed them Elsie wasn't allowed visitors. As Pratt put it, "I don't even know if she's still alive."
Elsie's story may remind readers of Netflix's black comedy I Care a Lot, which has brought attention to some states' lax laws surrounding legal guardianship. But unlike the film, Pratt warned, the events in Elsie's life were all too real.
"It could be a book. People would be like, 'Nah! That couldn't happen,'" she said. "Yeah, it can happen."
Lloyd cannot verify the facts of Elsie's case, which Pratt reported to Adult Protective Services and the Vermont State Police in 2019. (When Lloyd learned of it, months later, she, too, referred it to law enforcement; "actions were not taken," she said.) But Lloyd finds Pratt's account instructive in highlighting the telltale signs of financial exploitation by someone known to the victim. Elsie was isolated from friends and associates. A formerly estranged family member took over her finances by convincing her to sign legal documents while under emotional duress, without counsel or guidance from someone she trusted.
"When you have a sophisticated family member who knows how to put the appropriate legal documents in place," Lloyd said, "then that becomes a very high hurdle [for investigators] to get over."
Lloyd is also an attorney and founder of Athena Advocacy, a company that provides guardianship, fiduciary and care-advocacy services. She said one of the best ways for Vermonters to protect themselves is through good estate planning — writing a will, executing an advance medical directive, and designating a trusted friend or family member as a financial power of attorney. People who sign legal documents while going through a traumatic experience, such as the loss of a spouse, may be vulnerable to poor decision making and exploitation.
Though financial abuse happens often, Lloyd said FAST of Vermont can help. Often the hardest step is making that first phone call. Lloyd likened the problem to how society treated domestic violence decades ago: What happens in the home stays in the home.
"As a culture, we don't talk about money. It's very private," she said. "When you think about financial exploitation, especially among family members, we're in a place where we need to break that silence."