The best defensive weapon is the mind, Don K. Shreffler, special agent with the Iowa Department of Public Safety, told the Prime Time group at Floyd Valley Hospital last week.
His 23 years in law enforcement include the past two years in a special Senior Crimes Unit with the responsibility of protecting older Iowans and "vulnerable" adults, such as persons with disabilities. Shreffler is also Iowa's senior polygraph examiner who works with lie-detector machines.
While the two-man unit would like to be more pro-active in preventing victimization, most of their time is spent working cases of crimes that have occurred. They cover crimes involving abuse, neglect and exploitation.
The FVH presentation was one of the first for a general audience rather than for training law officers, so Shreffler said he would be back in about six weeks with more information on specific scams.
Exploitation is defined in the Code of Iowa in Chapter 235B2 as "Taking unfair advantage of the physical or financial resources of the dependent adult for one's own profit."
Law enforcement needs help to track when this is happening, according to Shreffler. If the total is over $1,000, it would count as a Class D felony, under Iowa law.
The profile of a typical victim of exploitation includes characteristics such as: * over age 60; * female; * widowed; * physically or mentally impaired to some degree; * dependent on a caregiver; * socially isolated and withdrawn from society; * lack of knowledge about finance; * more trusting of people; * easily confused or intimidated.
The offenders who exploit the vulnerable are often those in a caregiving role or some kind of fiduciary role giving them some kind of control of finances.
The typical offender is a younger white male, related to the victim, who is financially dependent on the victim and has some kind of fiduciary relationship with the victim. The offender usually rationalizes the theft as being "right" or "deserved." There is usually plenty of discord in the offender's personal life.
Some of the methods of exploitation include: * mis-use of bank accounts; * mis-use of a power-of-attorney; * mis-use as a representative payee; * stolen checks (such as Social Security, pension or investments); * mis-use of cash by short-changing for purchases or services; * manipulating a client to sign documents; * borrowing or buying on a client's credit; * misrepresentation or mis-use of entrusted funds; * overcharging for services; * theft of property; and * psychological coercion to obtain money.
Shreffler suggested that seniors develop a kind of "neighborhood watch" among seniors.
"You can't afford to leave people outside," he warned, because those are often the ones who often can be victimized.
Warning signs of exploitation include: * suspicious credit card activity; * missing personal items; * new "will" is made in favor of the current caregiver; * suspicious or "in-authentic" signatures on documents; * change in spending habits by the caregiver.
When a crime is reported to their Senior Crime Unit, the agents use teamwork with other officers for the investigations to do interviews with the victim, suspects and any witnesses. They follow any paper trails of documents and may use forensic examinations of any evidence. There is a three-year statute of limitations on estate theft.
In proving there was "undue influence," the officers know it is not the same legally as mental capacity. It may involved excessive pressure or persuasion by a dominant person over decisions made by the victim. It usually is a form of manipulation of control and takes unfair advantage of a senior citizen.
One way to lessen that influence is to stay in contact with other seniors, Shreffler indicated. He advised the Prime Time members to go out and not be isolated.
One annoyance expressed by audience members was telemarketers. Shreffler said telemarketers often call senior citizens "pigeons" because they are less likely to end a phone call.
"The longer telemarketers keep you on the line, the more likely they can get money from you," said Shreffler.
He reminded the audience to never give personal information to someone who calls. No caller should ever be told a Social Security number or a credit card number.
He echoed the advice of Janet Manning of Le Mars, who tells telemarketers, "I don't do any business over the telephone."
While one can ask to be removed from call lists, Shreffler did not put much faith in that working with unscrupulous callers, even though a law provides for such requests. The important thing is to hang up quickly, perhaps after a quick, "I'm not interested."
If someone comes to the door, claiming to be an employee or officer, ask that a badge be shown through the window or under the door, Shreffler suggested. Never let anyone inside if the individual is unknown.
Shreffler assured the audience, "I don't want you to be suspicious of everybody." However, there are people who will take advantage of others, especially seniors or persons with disabilities. He told the Prime Time audience he would return to FVH with more information.