Mar 28, 2024 - News

Financial exploitation of older adults up in King County

Illustration of a middle-aged person holding their head in their hands with arrows and zigzag lines in the background.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Loss of judgment, not memory, is often among the first signs of early dementia, making some older people easy targets for scammers and cons, according to King County prosecutors.

Why it matters: The typical victim of elder abuse, especially financial exploitation, has a cognitive disorder that has not been diagnosed or recognized by a family member, said Page Ulrey, head of the prosecuting attorney's Elder Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation Unit.

  • Another common risk factor is social isolation, Ulrey told Axios; most victims are single or living alone after the death of a spouse.

By the numbers: Elder abuse, which is often underreported, costs an estimated $28.3 billion nationally each year, according to a 2023 study conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago and AARP.

  • For every case of elder financial exploitation that is reported, another 43 cases are estimated to go unreported, per King County prosecutors.

Zoom in: Reports to Adult Protective Services in Washington of sexual or physical abuse, neglect or financial exploitation have tripled in the last decade, King County prosecutors said at a press conference last year.

  • In 2022, Adult Protective Services (APS) received 65,844 reports of elder abuse across the state, with 12,785 of them occurring in King County, per the elder abuse unit.

State of play: Among the most common scams investigated in King County is the "best friend" scenario, in which the suspect becomes close to a lonely older person and separates them from others, becoming, as Ulrey says, "a cult of two."

  • The construction or house repair scam is also common in King County. Suspects claim the victim's driveway, chimney or deck needs to be repaired, and while the work is never done, the payments to the "contractors" go on, she said.
  • And then there's the ubiquitous sweetheart scam, often featuring a younger woman feigning interest in an older man, per prosecutors.

What's next: Ulrey will speak on a panel at a Town Hall Seattle event on Tuesday about elder abuse and the effect of longevity on the criminal justice system.

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