Posts by The Seniors Center Blog

As President of The Seniors Center, Dan Perrin has built a grassroots movement of over 450,000 senior citizens who educate the American public and influence policy makers on issues that effect the quality of life for Americas retired people. The Seniors Center concentrates on securing the Social Security Trust Fund where it has advocated for repayment of funds diverted from Social Security into the Federal Budget. The Seniors Center is based in Washington, DC.

Rich Clarkson: a photography legend shares his shocking battle with an exploitative conservatorship

You may not have heard of Rich Clarkson–not unless you follow the world of photojournalism.

But if you do, you know Clarkson is an icon.

At 86 years of age, he’s accomplished things most photographers can only dream of: he was the head of photography for The Topeka Capital-Journal, the president of the National Press Photographers Association, photographed over 30 covers of Sports Illustrated Magazine, founded his own multimedia company, and most notably was the director of photography for a little ol’ publication called National Geographic Magazine.

Clarkson is considered one of the godfathers of modern sports photojournalism.  His work in the field not only earned him a slew of prestigious awards and honors from both the press and sports worlds, but also helped to mold several future photography leaders working underneath him during his time at The Topeka.

Staff he mentored went on to hold enviable positions at NatGeo, Life, and The Washington Post, become official White House photographers, and even win the Pulitzer Prize.

Rich Clarkson is a pioneer.  And even in his senior years, he still just wants to spend his time doing what he loves.

When asked what his goals are for the remainder of his life, he says he just wants access to his equipment to build a retrospective of his work.  He intends to leave it and the negatives with those who will make sure his work is preserved and shared with the world long after he’s gone.

But he can’t do that. He no longer has access to his equipment or his workspace.

Clarkson says this from a sofa–his sofa from his home–in an apartment he hates.  The sofa, along with other furniture and several of his personal belongings, were removed from his house and shipped to the apartment without his knowledge or consent.

Clarkson himself was placed in the residence without his knowledge or consent.  After what seemed to be a routine medical interview, a state-appointed conservator showed up and brought Clarkson to the facility under the impression he was simply being shown an apartment to consider.

In truth, the medical interview was manipulated if not totally falsified and used by the conservator to have Clarkson declared incompetent.  He wasn’t there to consider an apartment–the conservator had already gained possession of his things, had them moved to the new residence, and lied to Clarkson to get him there.

Clarkson wasn’t visiting.  He already lived there.  Court-ordered. Court-approved.

Having no relatives, Clarkson attempted to reach out to his staff and colleagues for help.  He quickly found the conservator also had these people completely barred from contacting him.

So now, Rich Clarkson, a man with more awards than he has wall space in his den, is legally trapped in a tiny, half-empty apartment and cut off from those closest to him.

Door-to-door deception: stay vigilant for common summertime home repair, landscaping, and security system scams

For many of us, Winter 2017 was a cold that wouldn’t quit (and here in our Nation’s Capital, Spring 2018 has been a total wash).  With Summer Solstice less than a month away, we can finally trade the jackets and galoshes for sandals, sunglasses, and a tall glass of iced tea.

But shorts and flip-flops aren’t the only things making their 2018 debuts right about now: just like mosquitoes, you can expect seasonal scammers to start buzzing around front porches near you.

And while phone, mail, and email schemes are snow, sleet, and rain-proof, summer sunshine offers scammers yet another opportunity to bilk seniors out of money–one that can be incredibly lucrative if they’re willing to step up and ring the doorbell.

Door-to-door scamming uses the warm weather to take advantage of those thinking about big summertime renovation projects, like repairing the roof or fence, resealing the driveway, or installing a brand new security system.

It’s also a time of year homeowners are spending a lot more time out in their yards–especially retirees on weekdays when neighbors are off at work.  These scammers can screen neighborhoods, easily identify their preferred victims while they’re weeding their flowerbeds, and approach the victim right in their yard to make a high-pressure sales pitch.

As with many scams, senior victims are frequently ideal targets.  Imagine a victim living alone–someone who may have health, cognitive, or mobility challenges–being approached by several people incredibly eager to make a sale.  People of all ages struggle with aggressive sales situations, but seniors can be especially vulnerable.

The scammer can offer anything from fence repair to tree trimming to house painting or siding repair.  He might offer some kind of free inspection service for home security or pests.  Recently, many of these scammers even claim to be with a utility company offering some kind of new product, upgrade, or inspection.

But in the end, no matter what service they’re offering, their goal is to make you a promise, take your money, and run.

Particularly clever door-to-door scammers have even been known to base their scam narrative off legitimate work being done in the neighborhood.

For example, a con artist might give his driveway paving scam the semblance of legitimacy by knocking on doors when actual paving trucks are working down the block.  In a common version of this scam, the fraudster will make his pitch by saying, “we’re with the paving company working down the street and we have some extra asphalt–we noticed your driveway could use work and we’d like to offer you a deal.”

Like any scam, these “contractors” will usually ask for money up front–in cash–before work has even been initiated.  Once payment is secured, the scammer will either show up to do incredibly shoddy work or won’t show up for the scheduled work at all.  Though the latter may seem particularly bad, the former is often much worse–not only does a victim lose thousands of dollars in payment to the scammer, but it may also cost thousands more to hire a professional to correct the damage that was done.

Rule #1: as door-to-door scamming season approaches, don’t trust any kind of contractor, landscaper, or renovation specialist soliciting you without your inquiry.  This isn’t to say ALL door-to-door sales are sinister–it’s very possible a roofing company could try to drum up a little extra business near a work site by leaving their information with neighbors in need of a few repairs.  But you should be very skeptical and you should NEVER agree to any kind of work based on a doorstep solicitation.  Always, always, always research a company and read reviews before you schedule work.  Ask for information and time to consider the offer, but definitely don’t make the decision on the spot.

Rule #2: high-pressure sales tactics are the hallmark of scammers.  “We can only give you this low price if you schedule the work right now,” “this offer is only available today,” “if you don’t act now, we won’t be in this area again.”  These strategies are intended to make you go against your better judgment and make a split-second uninformed decision.  A legitimate contractor gives you time to consider a quote. Be wary of those who don’t.

Rule #3: do not pay contractors upfront.  While it is common and customary for homeowners and contractors to negotiate a reasonable down payment for major repairs or substantial work, don’t trust someone demanding most or all of their compensation upfront.  A scammer will try to squeeze every last drop of money out of a victim upfront as possible.  A professional will understand and expect that a client needs to see great work being completed as promised before making full payment.

Rule #4: whatever payment structure you agree on, get it in writing before you make payment.

Rule #5: be wary when asked to pay in cash.  Like Rule #1, this is not always a marker for a scammer.  Legitimate contractors take cash the same way a scammer will–some professionals may even offer a small discount on work if you pay in cash.  But the difference between a professional and a scammer is a professional accepts several forms of payment–scammers only accept cash.  Combined with demanding payment upfront, if a door-to-door solicitor only accepts cash for services, you’ve probably got a scammer on your hands.

These aren’t the only solid suggestions you should keep in mind to avoid being door-to-door scammed. Check out this article at AgingCare for some more common door-to-door scam tactics and key things to keep and eye on to avoid becoming another victim.

Gone phishin’: scammers’ favorite crime and what you need to know to protect yourself

Phishing scams–so-called because they bait victims into “biting” and handing over cash and personal information–are some of the fastest growing scams in the world. Phishing scams have grown by 65% in the past year, and 76% of businesses fall prey to phishing attempts every year. These scams cost individuals and companies millions of dollars in damages.

The most basic phishing attempt consists of a scammer reaching out in some way and presenting himself as someone he’s not in an effort to convince you to either give him money or information he can use to take your money later.  He might offer you a product, service, or some kind of counseling to entice you, or he might make threats to scare you into coughing up your information (think the latest “you owe the IRS” scams going around).

Phishers–like a great many other kinds of scammers–frequently target seniors due to their retirement accounts, assets, the variety of opportunities and narratives a scammer has to dupe seniors, and most importantly the isolation and loneliness that many experience with age.  And since the majority of phishers use the internet to contact and deceive their victims, it is likely thought many seniors won’t have the technical wherewithal to notice the red flags of a scam.

Here are three common ways you might encounter a phishing scam:

Phone calls 

Responding to recent data breaches and an overall increase in fraud related to identity theft, Medicare beneficiaries received replacement Medicare cards featuring new Health Insurance Claim Numbers (HICN).  Previously these numbers were based on the cardholder’s SSN, making seniors vulnerable to identity theft should they have their card stolen or copied.

Ironically, scammers used this security update as an opportunity to extract tons of sensitive information–including the SSNs Medicare was trying to protect–from beneficiaries who believed they were providing a legitimate agency with details related to the card update.

In reality, they were being phone-phished by scammers pretending to work for Medicare.  In one scenario victims were told they’d need to pay for their replacement cards and were prompted for bank account numbers, credit card numbers, or asked to wire money for the fee.  In another, they were told in order to receive the updated card, they’d have to verify or provide personal information.

In both cases, these phone numbers were often “spoofed” to appear as though the call were coming from a legitimate source, and callers came prepared with the name of the target.

Websites

It is estimated 46,000 phishing websites are created every single day, with an average of 1.4 million every month.  These websites reach us via the email, social media links, and advertisements we view every day.  Most masquerade as seemingly legitimate online stores or services, and more insidious versions are designed to mimic and sometimes totally replicate a well-known company or agency website.

Take for example the Google login page.  Gmail is an incredibly popular web-based email service that millions of people log into every day.  We all know the simple yet highly identifiable white login screen:

Actually, this isn’t the Google login page.  This was a phishing site that was stealing users’ Google account credentials in order to gain access to their personal data.

THIS was the legitimate Google login page at the time:

This is how sinister these sites can be.  To recognize the fake from the authentic, the user would have had to notice the serif font in the Google logo (Google abandoned its famous serif font for the sans-serif font seen on the authentic image in 2015) and the lack of a two-prompt login process (meaning you are prompted to enter your email first and then your password on the next screen instead of both on one screen–another change Google made in 2015).

Would you have paid that much attention?  Do you even know the Google login that well?  Most people probably don’t.

Now imagine it’s a Medicare site.  Or a Social Security Administration website.  Or an online pharmacy offering amazing deals on critical prescription medications.  Maybe it’s a seniors dating service or a seniors travel club or a retirement community.  All you need to do to access your amazing deal or offer is enter your name, your address, your phone number, your SSN, your credit card number, your bank account number, or enter the login details to your existing my SocialSecurity account or email.

Email

According to the Canadian government, over 156 million phishing emails are sent every single day–and despite our best attempts to identify and destroy these mass emailings, as many as 16 million malicious emails sneak past spam filters daily.

Email is without a doubt the go-to weapon in every cyberattacker’s arsenal.  Not only is it a great way to communicate with a victim or coax a victim toward a phishing website, but it opens the door to just about every way an online attacker can access your data, your devices, and your network.

As much as 91% of ALL cyberattacks begin with a simple email.

Typically the goal of these emails is to use trick the recipient into clicking a link to a phishing website.  Like the websites, these emails can be cleverly disguised to mimic the branding of a trusted website, vendor, or online portal.  But a scammer may reach out directly to message and manipulate an intended victim–such as in the now famous “Nigerian Prince” scam.

But these emails can be particularly harmful when they act as vectors for malicious code. Some of the most devastating exploits and infections in the history of the internet were released into the digital wild via an innocuous-looking email attachment.

A sophisticated cybercriminal can disguise just about any flavor of data-stealing, device-damaging malware (Cofense estimates over 97% of phishing emails now contain some kind of ransomware, a particularly brutal and usually irreversible malware that encrypts your hard drive until you pay a ransom for the decryption key–if the attacker plans on giving you that key at all).

And don’t be too hasty in thinking you’d instinctively recognize a malicious message or attachment: Intel found 97% of users globally are not able to identify a truly clever phishing email.

How to recognize a phishing scam

  • Don’t trust anyone who contacts you and demands money or sensitive information on the spot. This is not how ANY legitimate business or agency does business.  Email and phone are unsecure–nobody looking out for your best interests will demand SSNs and bank account numbers over these channels.  And most of the agencies these people pretend to be from (like Medicare) will NEVER call you or email you asking you this information. They already have it.
  • Don’t trust anyone demanding payment with cash or cash-like methods. Wiring money, buying gift cards in round amounts and reading the numbers over the phone, and sending cash are ALWAYS signs of a scam.
  • Don’t trust anyone demanding payment or information with threats, pressure, or scare-tactics. Again, this is not how a legitimate agency does things.
  • Always, always, always look closely at website URLS. The #1 giveaway that you’ve been navigated to a phishing website is the URL.  Before you enter login information or credit card information into a site, check the URL to make sure it matches that of the legitimate site you’re trying to use.  Though a phishing site may look dead-on, you’ll often find the URL exposes you aren’t where you should be.  Dummy URLs often have long strings of gibberish, subtle misspellings or errors, are missing forward slashes, or don’t have the s in “https”.
  • Don’t ever trust forms embedded in emails.
  • Check the legitimacy of email links before clicking. Hover your cursor over hyperlinks in emails to show the true link URL.  What is displayed in the text may not match the true URL.
  • Make sure the sender email address is valid.The sender’s domain address may not be a legitimate email address of the company or agency the sender claims to be part of.
  • Ignore pop-up ads that ask for your login or information.
  • Use fake passwords to test the legitimacy of a login. A phishing site has no idea if the login credentials you’re using are correct–they will sign you in no matter what username or password you give because they are simply logging what you’ve entered.  If you enter a fake username and password into a login screen and appear to be successfully logged into the site, it’s probably a phishing site.
  • Don’t assume all links in an email are legitimate if one or two appear to be. It is a common tactic of phishers to hide bogus links in a cluster of legitimate links.
  • Don’t click suspicious email attachments for any reason. Unless you are absolutely certain of the identity of the sender, you should never download unsolicited email attachments.  The ONLY email attachments you should open are those you are already expecting to receive.  Businesses do not send attachments unsolicited.
  • Don’t trust display names or email address headers. In the same way a phisher by phone can spoof a phone number, an email phisher can spoof the name of the sender and the headers of email addresses.  Always look closely at domains and never take display names for granted.

Is this a scam? Pay attention to way someone asks you to pay

phone-449836_1920.jpgThe hardest part of preventing yourself from becoming the victim of a scammer is recognizing whether an offer or threat is a scam in the first place.

Many people fail to appreciate a seasoned scammer knows what he’s doing. The more confident you are no one can get one over on you, the more susceptible you are to a true professional.

A successful scammer is charismatic, very convincing, and failing all else, knows how to apply pressure and intimidate his target. He’s anticipated your questions and prepared responses–and he’s maybe even prepared to counter some of the well-known techniques recommended to identify a scammer.

That’s why we can’t ever fault someone for falling for these schemes. These people are very good at what they do. And anyway, if it were easy to recognize a scam, no one would be a scammer. There wouldn’t be any profit in it.

But even a brilliant social engineer can’t hide every telltale sign of fraud. At the end of the day, the scammer has to be able to make a financial transaction to receive his prize. And this transaction has to be done in a way that obscures his identity and can’t be reversed.

Basically, a scammer needs his victim to give him cash. Cash leaves no paper trail, can be picked up at anonymous locations, and payment can’t be stopped when the fraud is discovered.

No matter what the scam is or how good the scammer is, they will give themselves away when the time comes to ask a victim to pony up. Not only will he eventually ask you for a form of cash, he’ll probably also tell you it’s the only way you can pay.

Absolutely no trustworthy company or organization does business this way.

The Federal Trade Commission recommends watching for this very ask if you suspect someone who has contacted you for money is trying to trick you.


Just bear in mind it won’t always be paper currency. There are several payment options a scammer might suggest that essentially function the same as paper currency:

  • Wiring money
  • Sending or providing the number from gift cards, like Amazon, iTunes, Apple (the scammer will usually sell these gift cards to receive a profit)
  • Sending or providing the number from prepaid debit cards, like MoneyPak/Green Dot cards, Reloadit cards, or VISA gift cards

Again, keep this in mind: with the exception of small retailers and eateries you’d visit in person, almost no legitimate business deals in cash only (many won’t deal with cash at all). And no illegitimate business will deal in anything else.

No matter how good his “you owe the IRS a ton of money” game is, a scammer blows his entire setup when he has to ask you for cash–especially if it requires you to buy 13 iTunes gift cards at exactly $150 each and call him back to read him all 13 numbers (hahaha, the IRS wants you to do what?).

So ignore the offer, the personality, the threats, and the details. All you need to do to catch a crook is keep an ear out for the dead giveaway: scammers always ask for cash.

Once the caller demands a wire transfer or a VISA gift card, hang up the phone. Don’t argue, don’t reason with the scammer, and don’t let him know you find his demands for cash suspicious (as we’ve already said, top notch scammers know to finesse you and talk themselves out of corners). Don’t even say a word.

Just abruptly hang up the phone and block the number.

Exploitation, racketeering, theft, and perjury: court-appointed guardians are building empires on senior abuse

“It’s unfortunate, but old people fall.”

These are the words of Barbara Andruccioli, who worked as a guardian and conservator of an elderly couple in the suburbs of Detroit.

The callousness in Ms. Andruccioli’s reply to the news that the two people she was charged to care for had been experiencing frequent fall is emblematic of the cruelty of court-appointed guardians for elderly across the country.

Ms. Andruccioli also allowed the couple over whom she was in charge to sleep in their own urine, according to WXYZ TV in Detroit.

That loss of dignity—indeed, of humanity—is, sadly, common for elderly people who are taken from the care of their children and other relatives and legally confined to the inadequate care of so-called guardians. Anyone over the age of 60 must know their rights, and the legal system must work to reform to prevent these tragedies from continuing.

In theory, elderly people are placed in the care of a guardian as a way of protecting their health and their finances. Most guardians are private citizens with no prior background in elder care. One would think this would occur when a vulnerable person is without loved ones to care from them. But that is where the crucial difference between theory and practice comes in.

In the case of Milan and Janet Kapp, the elderly couple handed over to Ms. Andruccioli, they had daughter taking care of them, with two other children living nearby. Often, seniors with very active relatives who take regular care of them are yanked from their homes. They may be placed in assisted-living facilities, or elsewhere, and are all too often cruelly neglected.

These people are deemed unfit to handle their finances, but what is worse, their families lose legal authority to help, and often the person’s assets are sold to pay for their care–and to provide a profit for the guardian.

Picture it: an elderly couple being ushered out of their home with meager bags holding a fraction of their belongings, then driven to a facility for the elderly, while the stranger who’d dragged them away under threat of taking them to respite care would make decisions on their healthcare.

A well-known story of particular abuse was chronicled in The New Yorker last fall. Rudy and Rennie North lived in a retirement community in Las Vegas, complete with a view of the golf course. Their daughter, Julie, lived just minutes away and visited them almost daily. They also received the care of a nurse who came daily, which was beneficial and necessary for Rennie’s neuropathy.

The Norths woke up one morning and had breakfast with no reason to suspect anything was amiss. With no warning, a local—now notorious—guardian named April Parks entered the apartment with a few co-workers.

Without the Norths knowing it, Parks had gone to court to obtain guardianship over the two, arguing that they were mentally unfit to take their medications properly, an argument that ignored their nurse and visitations from Julie. While it sounds absurd, the court did what it does throughout the nation, which was to grant the guardianship, thus opening aging adults to the indignity of a stranger making the most basic decisions in their lives for them.

Picture it: an elderly couple being ushered out of their home with meager bags holding a fraction of their belongings, then driven to a facility for the elderly, while the stranger who’d dragged them away under threat of taking them to respite care would make decisions on their healthcare.

This is something none of us thinks will ever happen to us or our loved ones. We take for granted a measure of freedom—that’s what we work for. What people fear, to some extent, is the sticky matter of having to put their parents in an assisted-living facility, perhaps doing so in the face of tears or of pleas to the let their parents stay at home.

What probate guardianship represents is much worse, since it dislocates bewildered seniors, treating them like property. Once the wards have been forcibly relocated into sub-par housing, with their family legally barred from visiting except at designated times, they are neglected by the guardian, who initially posed as being concerned for their welfare.

For example, Milan and Janet Kapp, in addition to gaining no sympathy for their frequent falls, also had to live without wheelchair ramps outside their home, where they still lived after having been classified as wards.

The request for the accommodation was made to a new guardian, who took over after the resignation of the aforementioned Andruccioli, who buckled under the shame of an evidentiary hearing that was made by Douglas Kuthy, attorney for the Kapp’s daughter. Kuthy told WXYZ that a series of e-mails requesting the ramps that would allow the Kapps to leave home went unanswered by the court-appointed guardian.

While the callous and inhumane attitudes of Andruccioli, Parks, and guardians across the country, are shocking, they are rooted in the motives of these guardians.

That motive is profit.

One of the chief ways in which these sham-guardians enrich themselves is by billing obscene amounts for their services.

As an example, Andruccioli charged $245/hour, while her staffers charged up to $165/hour. These and similar fees charged by various guardians, are expected in return for their violating their wards and their families, for their making decisions counter to the will of everyone involved, and for their often greatly endangering the very lives of the seniors they exploit. All of this is court sanctioned.

But there’s a second way these predators line their pockets. As allowed by courts, these guardians sell the assets of the people they victimize. In the case of the Norths in their sunny Vegas apartment, a crew of scavengers trudged in after Parks, just minutes after the guardian had whisked the couple away.

These people stole from the Norths not only valuable artwork, but paintings made by their son. They sold Rudy’s Chrysler for less than $8,000. Parks put the North’s savings in an account in her name.

Assuming guardianship over wealthy seniors, is, then, a business model. Those engaged in it have no interest in any aspect of senior care. Rather, they are glorified burglars, casing homes, salivating over riches inside, and hatching schemes to get those riches.

People such as Parks–and her former rival, the notorious Nevada guardian Jared Shafer—depend on cronyism with one or more guardianship commissioner, who will green-light their thefts. For example, Parks was granted guardianship over the Norths ex parte, meaning with there was no requirement that anyone—not the Norths, nor their members–be present.

It should be clear that inadequate laws—or laws made to promote corruption—are a major part of the problem here. As with many cases of opportunists breezing in and benefitting from their knowledge–and in the case of Shafer—the actual crafting of obscure laws, one problem is that people are just unaware that any of this can happen.

To bring closure to these horror stories, they did have endings with some measure of justice. This past November, the Norths were liberated from the ill-intentioned guardianship of Parks, which Rudy described as a kidnapping. They were awarded $8.3 million in damages.

Parks, along with her team, was indicted on more than 200 counts of exploitation, racketeering, theft, and perjury. The charges apply to crimes committed to more than 150 victims.

As for Andruccioli, she was fired by Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, meaning her racket as an estate thief is over.

Let’s hope that guardians throughout the country are aware of the very real consequences faced by their crooked colleagues.

People learning about these horrors may wonder how likely it is to happen to them or to their parents or other loved ones. While stories about terrible examples of guardianship have recently come from Nevada, it’s a national issue. It’s true that less populous areas will have less guardians, and that areas with higher concentrations of seniors have too many of these exploiters. They are on the lookout for wealthy seniors with estates that make their crimes worthwhile.

The biggest warning sign is a potential guardian going to a judge to get permission for guardianship. Guardianships should arise due to a real need, such as complaints of poor care made by the potential ward, reported by neighbors, etc. In this case, you may find a guardian who has legitimate concern about the well-being of seniors. However, guardianship by a probate guardian is problematic in any circumstance.

That can be due to the very high fees charged and the generally disconnected nature of the guardian. It can be the case that if the guardian sells assets of the ward, they may illegally take some of the profits for themselves. In fact, they sometimes sell large items such as cars to a partner at low prices, report that low price to the courts, and then have their partner re-sell the item to someone else and get a tidy profit.

A lot of what is driving the abuse of guardianship powers is the way the system is set up and run. First off, the requirements for becoming a guardian are minimal. Some lawyers or government employees cynically identify opportunities for exploitation. Some entrepreneurs have the same motivations.

While information on the guardianship process can often be found on a state’s web page, information on background checks and other screening processes for guardians is shadowy.

A recent Huffington Post article cited a report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) saying it was impossible to find any entity that provided “comprehensive information on this issue.” This means that those guardians who may feel they are helping their wards may have a hard time acquiring the right philosophy to do their work with the right compassion and stamina. No one holds guardians to standards, except the families, who are relatively powerless.

It’s also important to know that no limits are placed on the number of wards a guardian can have. While the jail-bound Parks had a roster in the hundreds, that is, fortunately, a bit extreme. The Huffington Post tells us that in Virginia, there are, on average, 20 wards per guardian, while it’s 40 to 1 in Florida. How can a guardian attempting to oversee so many elderly people be a better situation than their children or the staff at an assisted-living facility doing so?

Another condition that creates a safe environment for probate guardians is corruption at the local level, which can include judges or probate commissioners who are essentially co-conspirators with guardians. A good example is Jon Norheim, who is notorious in Nevada, and whose many callous and sarcastic remarks at the expense of wards or their families are well documented in the New Yorker article. He presided over many cases of Parks’, as well as those of Jared Shafer, an infamously aggressive and unscrupulous guardian.

In a 2013 hearing in a case involving Shafer, the attorney for Shafer’s ward claimed that the ward’s bank account was empty, with no records to show where the funds had gone. Shafer, who, like many guardians, is not a lawyer, asked Norheim to close the court. Norheim—not a judge—complied, meaning that everyone but the ward’s attorney and Norheim had to leave, unable to hear what came next.

The fact that probate guardianship has a Wild West quality is depressing. Yet, it also offers a ray of hope, since it indicates room for legislative remedies to much of what is wrong with the system. Laws could be passed to install stricter requirements for potential guardians; this could include requiring guardians to be government employees, who’d have no profit motive; legislation could limit the number of cases heard by a commissioner or judge and provide greater oversight over their rulings; laws could strictly limit the number of wards a guardian could have, and could require that family members be given a chance to attend hearings.

However, corruption is difficult to stop in its tracks. Bad judges will always enable bad guardians. Those in power can get away with breaking laws.

Some of the most promising solutions for this crisis come from people themselves.

One cheering development—which we are trying to perpetuate with this essay—is a greater awareness. In the tragic tale of the Norths, a change came midstream. At a 2015 hearing at which the Norths were to discuss finances, local media was present, since a Las Vegas newspaper had recently run an investigative article. The members of the media found a Norheim who was suddenly concerned about the Norths while he’d presided over Parks’ exploitation of them for nearly two years. In fact, at that hearing, Norheim suspended Parks from the case—a tremendous load off the Norths, and what would become the first domino to fall in their eventual victory. No one familiar with Norheim’s record would fail to realize this as a cynical attempt to cover himself, an act for the press. But it was a big victory for an oppressed elderly couple, and it wouldn’t have happened without a spotlight on the story.

Later, Norheim was permanently pulled from probate hearings involving the elderly. Now, the fact that he was moved to guardianship cases pertaining to minors is frightening, but it shows that the judicial system is capable of some oversight, long overdue though it may be.

The Norths’ large settlement that came later shows that not all components of the system heartlessly conspire against elderly people and their families. Justice is reachable. But it must be fought for. Further, the tragedy of the mental and physical abuse countless people have suffered cannot be made up for with later corrections. Stopping these exploitation campaigns from ever happening is crucial.

This may be a new topic to you—the lay person can’t be expected to understand or to know much about these events, particularly since most would assume something would be in place to stop them. Awareness is the key. While in a perfect world the responsibility wouldn’t be on all of us, there are preventive measures we can take.

As a society, we need to make the ways of avoiding unscrupulous guardians common currency. The power of united people is the best deterrent to would-be exploiters, while an awareness of one’s rights is a defense against neglect and incompetence.

One major course of action is establishing power of attorney. This designates a person to act on behalf of the person in question, making decisions about finances and about healthcare. In fact, that acting attorney can can actually be the person’s guardian.

Elder Law attorney Eric Goldberg told HuffPo that a specific healthcare power of attorney can allow a person invested with the power to make all healthcare decisions for the person when he or she becomes incapacitated.

According to Goldberg, the key is to take these precautions in advance and to be sure that appropriate parties have copies of your paperwork and are aware. In some of the horror stories we’ve outlined, the ward had already drawn a will, which was ignored. This is certainly a worse-case scenario—one can only be as prepared as possible.

Goldberg has a great piece of advice along these lines. He counsels the families of aging relatives to consult with their bank and ideally get it to accept their power of attorney. Similar arrangements are possible with hospitals and doctor’s offices.

This kind of effort helps create partnerships between families and community members who may be there when important actions are to be carried out. This makes it much less likely that the elderly person’s wishes will be lost or ignored.

As a society, we need to make the ways of avoiding unscrupulous guardians common currency. The power of united people is the best deterrent to would-be exploiters, while an awareness of one’s rights is a defense against neglect and incompetence.

We should remain hopeful that legislation will proceed in a moral fashion, helping with the fight. We should contact our representatives.

But ultimately we must be vigilant and take all the precautions we can. The best way to hold onto power is to take it in the first place.

Kentucky lawyer pulls off $550 million disability con–the largest Social Security fraud in U.S. history

In 2010, small town Kentucky lawyer Eric Conn was the third-highest-earning disability lawyer in the United States, winning $3.9 million for his clients in their disability claims against the Social Security Administration.

By all appearances, Conn was a virtuoso. He boasted a 99% success rate in getting his clients their disability payments–collecting as much as $6,000 for himself per win. In his advertisements, Conn used the moniker “Mr. Social Security.”

But those were just appearances. While it’s true Conn successfully argued most of his cases, it had nothing to do with skill.

Well, not litigation skills, anyway.

Unbeknownst to his clients, the Social Security Administration, and just about everyone who knew his reputation, Conn was committing the single largest Social Security fraud in history.

His high win rate was purchased from a corrupt Social Security judge willing to approve anything Conn put across his desk in exchange for over a half million dollars in bribes.

For the next seven years, law enforcement built their case against Conn and his accomplice, Judge David Daughtery. While Daughtery plead guilty to multiple felonies regarding his role in the fraud, Conn fled the country to escape imprisonment.

Meanwhile, as many as 1,700 innocent people suddenly lost their Social Security disability payments, which they came to know in time were obtained illegally.

CNBC reports on the mind-boggling scheme, its impact on Conn’s victims, and how those seeking assistance with their own Social Security cases can guard themselves against unscrupulous third party claim representatives.

How a small town lawyer pulled off the biggest Social Security scam in U.S. history and why it could happen again from CNBC.

 

Brace yourself: popular health scam promises free medical equipment and fraudulently bills your Medicare

It can happen a few different ways: you might be contacted via a phone call, you might receive a notice or postcard in the mail, or you may choose to contact the individual yourself after seeing an ad in your local circular or newspaper.

And the person you end up speaking to won’t always have the exact same story. Sometimes he’ll be a Medicare representative. Sometimes he’ll say he’s an employee of a medical device manufacturer or supplier. He might even tell you he was referred to you directly by your personal physician.

But though the contact method and back story is variable, what’s definitely going to happen when you start going back and forth with this scammer is he’s going to recommend you take him up on an excellent medical equipment offer.

Has your back troubled you recently? Do you have aches in your knees at all? Well, a brand new back or knee brace might be just the thing to improve your stability and ease your pain in these areas.

And since this equipment is 100% covered by Medicare, you won’t have to come out-of-pocket at all if you’re a Medicare beneficiary.

…So are you currently receiving Medicare? Can I have your card number?

The problem with this scam isn’t that your Medicare won’t cover your new back brace–it’s that the “Medicare representative” on the other end of phone isn’t intending on sending it to you.

That’s because once the scammer has the number on your Medicare card and whatever other personal information he might need, he can bill Medicare for your equipment–whether he sends it to you or not.

Often, back brace scammers don’t stop at just billing for a device they never sent.

Not only do they bill Medicare far more than the device’s actual value, but they’ll go on to repeatedly bill Medicare over time for treatments and equipment you never asked for or received.

Medicare scammers can run up tens of thousands of dollars in fraudulent Medicare claims in your name before they’re discovered.

The bottom line is this: when it comes to your medical treatments and therapies, put your trust in your caregivers alone. Only your doctor knows your history and what your needs are as a patient. All of your medical decision-making, including what therapeutic braces or equipment you might need, can and should be done through a trusted medical professional face-to-face.

Keep your Medicare and personal information private at all times. And never respond to ads, calls, mailings, or emails making medical offers or asking for your personal medical information. Direct all concerns and questions you have about your healthcare to your doctor alone.

“Just Hang Up”: Dan Rather Reports investigates the devastating impact of lottery and sweepstakes scams on seniors

They say “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” But saying something isn’t all that hard to do.

In theory, if a stranger reaches out to you and offers you the moon and stars out of nowhere, sure. It’s easy to say their promises probably come with a pretty big catch. After all, ain’t nothin’ free in this world.

But seasoned scam artists know you probably think that, so simply cold-calling, making the offer, and seeing who bites isn’t how they operate. Their challenge is to break through the wall of your common sense and good judgment by identifying the weak spots and chipping away until they gain entry.

They do this by selecting victims carefully and being willing to play a long game to gain trust and reap bigger rewards in time. Lottery scammers want lonely victims, victims who want to talk and trust, and victims who are likely to be in need extra funds. In most cases, this makes the ideal victim a senior.

Think about it: many seniors live alone, have few close friends, and limited contact with children and family members. Having few opportunities to sit and chat with someone, they’re likely to stay on the phone–and even more likely to share personal details and trust someone quickly.

These details and this trust are what the scammer needs to begin building a “relationship” with you. And it’s this relationship that makes the adage about looking gift horses in the mouth irrelevant–the scammer is just a helpful friend trying to give you a windfall of cash to help with medical and retirement expenses.

But once this trust is established, your “friend” will start asking you for money. To pay transfer fees. To pay taxes on your winnings. To pay for transporting your prize to your home. They’ll ask you to mail cash, to send Greendot or Visa gift cards, or wire money from your account.

And they’ll keep it going for as long as they can. The only thing you’ll ever receive from them are excuses–never your winnings.

Before a victim even realizes what happened, they’ve often lost thousands of dollars. In particularly heinous cases, seniors have lost their homes and nearly everything they’ve ever owned because of this scam.

In this three-part series from Dan Rather Reports, Rather and his team dive headfirst into the growing problem of senior lottery scamming. This investigation explores the lives of victims and confronts the lottery scammers face-to-face on their home turf.

 

Spotting an online scam: can you pass the quiz?

Home Instead Senior Care, the world’s largest in-home senior caregiving organization, recently launched a website focused on educating seniors and their families to recognize critical online scam red flags.

Just in time for tax season–a high traffic period for online scammers and identity thieves–Home Instead’s Protect Seniors Online offers visitors helpful resources regarding techniques to limit their vulnerability online and scammer strategies to watch out for as you browse websites, open emails, and post to social media.

And if you’d like to test your own knowledge of safe online navigation, you can take the website’s “Can You Spot an Online Scam” quiz.  It’s a 10-question test positing a series of common online scenarios–some safe, and some that should instantly set off alarm bells.  Your challenge is to differentiate the secure from the suspicious.

Check out this site if you want to learn more about how you can protect yourselves or your senior loved ones from online predators–and if you think you’ve got it all figured out, have a crack at the online scam quiz.  Let us know how you did!

 

During the biggest year for identity thieves in U.S. history, more Social Security numbers were stolen than credit card numbers for the first time

A brand new study conducted by Javelin Strategy and Research, reported by NBC News, revealed two discouraging facts about the ever-changing nature of cyber fraud and identity theft: thieves are increasingly able to adapt to attempts to thwart theft, and despite our best efforts, identity thieves are boasting more victims than ever before.

2017 marked an all-time high for identity theft. Approximately 16.7 million Americans fell prey to identity theft–the largest amount ever–with thieves pocketing around $16.8 billion in total. These crimes included using stolen credit card numbers to make online purchases, emptying bank accounts online, opening bogus Paypal accounts, and even stealing a victim’s reward points for shopping at certain merchants (IS NOTHING SACRED?).

In another first, theft via stolen Social Security numbers surpassed theft committed with stolen credit card numbers. This is largely due to the scope of this past summer’s Equifax breach.

But even without the disaster that created an all-you-can-eat buffet of our Social Security numbers, 2017’s identity theft trends suggest a larger shift in the way predators are targeting victims and using their data to steal.

With the gradual transition from traditional magnetic stripe bank cards to EMV or “chip” cards, point-of-sale skimming theft and duplicating physical cards has gotten a lot trickier.

This could be motivating many thieves to focus strictly on online transactions where a chip reader doesn’t come into play–or, better yet, stealing the identifying information needed to fraudulently open a card of their own.

hacking-2903156_1920

Having access to a Social Security number opens up a world of opportunities to cash in on a victim. Not only does it allow a criminal to sidestep tighter security that prevents transactions with a stolen or fake credit card, it also offers them a broader variety of ways to steal from a victim–especially in ways that might not be immediately noticeable.

Consider the uptick in thieves using stolen Social Security numbers and identifying information to file for someone’s retirement benefits. While using this data to alter the bank information and reroute direct deposit payments might tip off a victim quickly, a thief filing for benefits prior to the victim filing himself could stand to collect a tidy sum before the theft was detected.

It seems with each step forward we take to combat widespread identity theft, the fraudsters react with lightning speed, adjusting their methods to keep the cash rolling in.

But knowing where the focus has shifted helps us on an individual level take better care with our security, especially when using our credit cards and personal information online. If we appreciate the increasing risk and know where and how thieves access our information, we can take measures to minimize the bull’s eye on our wallets:

  • Encrypt, encrypt, encrypt. Your emails. Your photos. Your messages. The financial information or documents you might store on your devices. Encrypt everything. There are multiple tools available–some open source and free-to-use–that will help you do this.
  • Use two-factor authentication when possible. This is when access to an account requires more steps than just entering a password. For example, many social media platforms allow you to require a password AND a pin number texted to a mobile phone before access to an account is granted.
  • Don’t use public Wi-Fi. Intercepting data over a public connection is a classic way for a thief to snatch your personal information–especially if you’re making purchases. Just don’t ever use public Wi-Fi.
  • Keep an eye on your bank accounts and credit report. Many of us don’t actively monitor our financial health until the time comes to make a serious financial decision. By then, the damage could be done. Make time to screen your bank transactions for suspicious activity. Take advantage of each year’s free credit report to make sure you don’t see anything fishy (this is especially important after the Equifax breach).

The important takeaway from this report is that we all take our own cyber security very seriously–we should be as vigilant about protecting our digital information as we would about leaving our purses and wallets unattended.

Don’t wait to protect yourself until after you’ve been affected.