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Be alert to scams targeting the elderly

Each year, thousands of elderly people forfeit their money and property to scams. By striking fast, swindlers get in, grab the goods and get out before family members realize what's happening.

Elder law attorney Deb Speyer of Philadelphia says elder fraud is a major industry in America. "In most societies, the elderly are cherished, and here you have a small group of people who take advantage of them," she says. "Elder fraud is a billion-dollar business and growing every year."

A charmed life gone awry
At the age of 82, Irene Silverman's life was as rich as the fabrics that decorated her swanky Upper East Side New York mansion. Although she didn't need the money, Silverman divided her five-story home into minisuites to rent by the week. The rentals provided company and diversion. Silverman didn't like to be alone.

Her guests paid $6,000 per week to stay in the posh surroundings. Only the well-heeled and famous could afford it, and that made it safe. Or so she thought.

Everything changed when a mother-son team, Sante and Kenneth Kimes, showed up at Silverman's door. The professional con artists devised a simple plan to take control of the elderly woman's property: They'd kill Silverman, hide the body and present forged documents giving them possession of her home and other assets.

On July 5, 1998, Irene Silverman's life ended with a bullet. Eventually the Kimes were caught, tried and sentenced in connection with the case. But for Silverman's family and friends, revenge served cold provided little comfort.

Although Silverman's tragic fate isn't common, her case serves as an extreme example of what can happen when a vulnerable older person's path crosses that of someone bent on cheating her.

Total immersion
Speyer outlines a scenario she's seen way too many times: After gaining the confidence of an older person, opportunists take advantage of their relationship. They borrow money, talk the person into changing his or her will, run up credit card debt and/or liquidate assets. Many times, Speyer says, the victim is too embarrassed to tell his or her children.

"They often try to isolate (the elder) from friends and family members," Speyer says. Many times the scammer won't even let the victim answer the phone.

She says one client was ripped off after an individual insinuated himself into the woman's trust, then turned her against her own children. The swindler told the elderly lady her kids would put her in a nursing home, then offered to handle her affairs, promising to take care of her.

Money can be a powerful motivator, even within families. Cases like that of a Georgia retiree whose grown daughter stole his life's savings are not uncommon. The man obtained a civil judgment against his daughter, but hasn't collected. He lives on a small Social Security check. As for his daughter -- she has conveniently disappeared.

It's sad, but Speyer and other elder law attorneys see cases like this every day. Occasionally the swindler plays the part of a romantic interest, even when the age difference -- sometimes multiple decades -- should set off alarm bells.

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