Thursday, August 1, 2002

Seniors warned of in-house thefts

Published in the Current

Seniors are being warned to be careful about workers and others they allow into their homes. In three recent incidents, two Cape Elizabeth seniors had jewelry and other valuables stolen, and another had 50 tablets of painkillers stolen. In all three cases, in-home workers are suspected, according to Cape police.

The pills are believed to have been stolen by a person who advertised a housecleaning service by putting fliers on cars and in doors in various neighborhoods in Cape, according to Community Relations Officer Paul Gaspar. The victim hired the woman.

“She cleaned her house and cleaned out some of her medication as well,” Gaspar said.

Gaspar recommended that seniors and their families use caution when selecting home health care workers. He said people should make sure they use a reputable agency licensed by the state. To verify that information, people can call the Southern Maine Agency on Aging or the state Attorney
General’s office.

Pam Allen of Elder Independence of Maine said her organization requires provider agencies to check backgrounds and certifications of prospective employees.

She noted that a criminal history check won’t catch someone who is waiting for the chance to steal for the first time.

“Lock your possessions away, ” Allen said.

And screenings may not always be as thorough as they should be, she said. In Cumberland County there are 200 cases waiting for staff or additional staff, which is half of all patients waiting across the state, Allen said.

Agencies can’t find the staff to care for all the people who need help, meaning they may drop their hiring standards or be less likely to check every applicant fully, Allen said.

“Agencies are desperate to find staffing,” said Betty Jewett of the Southern Maine Agency on Aging.

If there is trouble getting help through an agency, people sometimes hire private caregivers, and that can be a real problem, Jewett said. With no supervision at all, they can gain access to more things and take greater advantage of their charges.

Allen’s organization audits home health care agencies, but can only check 20 percent of the statewide organizations in any given year.

Gaspar recommends checking references personally, rather than taking the word of an agency that a background check has been done.

Get the names of previous clients and call them, he said.

Protecting valuables by putting them in a safe-deposit box is another good move, as is getting jewelry and other valuables appraised and photographed, Gaspar said.

Allen said the best way to protect yourself is to know the names of people in your home, and who they are employed by. Allen also said seniors should remember that their home is still their property.

“If you feel uncomfortable, don’t let them in your home,” Allen said.

Financial exploitation
Some caregivers are more difficult to keep out of homes. They are friendly neighbors or even relatives.

Michael Webber, a detective with the state Attorney General’s office, said 80 percent of financial fraud against the elderly is committed by relatives.

Webber and Gaspar said between 60 percent and 80 percent of those crimes are not even reported because people are nervous about seeming unable to take care of themselves.

Sometimes unscrupulous neighbors can befriend seniors and begin to exploit them, or private caretakers can get access to checkbooks, credit cards or cash and use them for personal gain.

Home health workers and even helpful family members and neighbors should never ask for cash or gifts, said Jewett of the Agency on Aging. If seniors want to give gifts, that is fine, but there should never be any pressure to do so, she said.

Gaspar said there are people who are very friendly and helpful, and may ask for reimbursement for reasonable expenses incurred on behalf of seniors. For example, if a neighbor picks up groceries, it is reasonable for them to ask for the money to pay for it. But Gaspar warned against giving bank account or checkbook access to people seniors don’t know or don’t trust.

Detective Webber in the Attorney General’s office agrees. “Choose your caregiver well,” he said. And seniors should always get a neutral third party to look at any legal documents before signing them.

“Never sign paperwork unless it’s been reviewed,” Webber said.

He said don’t sign blank checks for anyone. He also suggested setting up direct deposit for any payments seniors expect to receive, such as pension or Social Security checks. That can limit the opportunity of people to steal checks or otherwise gain access to funds.

Webber said some seniors set up a limited power of attorney arrangement, which permits a caregiver to act on behalf of a senior citizen. Webber reminds seniors that those can be revoked at any time, and the power granted in one can be very specific, including restricting a person to using a checkbook for bill payments but no other purpose.

He encouraged seniors to keep a close eye on their finances. Often financial exploitation is only discovered late, when services are not being provided because of lack of funds, Webber said.

A variety of criminal charges can result, from simple theft charges to endangering the welfare of a dependent, misuse of entrusted property, or even serious felony charges, depending on the amount of money involved, Webber said.

Fraud even increases the risk of death, Webber said. Seniors who have been victims of theft or fraud face a higher risk of dying in the decade following the incident, than do seniors the same age who are not victims.

Scam protection
A further important part of senior self-protection is being careful not to be scammed, authorities say.

Late summer and early fall are prime time for home repair scams involving driveway, roof or chimney repairs, Gaspar said. Fall cleanup and tree pruning are also common fronts used by scammers.

Many of these scams begin with a knock on the door. A worker will say something like, “We were in the neighborhood and saw you need some work done.” Then he will explain that he can help out with some “spare materials from another job nearby,” or can do the job for less money because he is already on the job site.

These are warning signs for a scam.

Maine state law requires three days elapse between when a homeowner makes an agreement with a door-to-door tradesperson, and when that work can begin. Even if a property owner wants work to begin immediately, to start before three days goes by is against the law.

State law also requires a written contract detailing the specifics of the job and compensation.

“Don’t be pressured by a door-to-door person who says, ‘I need to do the work now,’” Gaspar said.

Some door-to-door workers will work in pairs. One person keeps the owner occupied at the front door, while the second goes in the back door and steals wallets, purses and other valuables.

There are phone, mail and e-mail scams, too. One of the latest announces that the recipient has won a major award in the Canadian lottery but has to pay a large sum, $500 or more, to cover bank transfer fees. The “transfer fee” charges are deducted, but no award is ever paid, as none has been won.

If seniors believe or discover they are the victims of a theft, fraud or exploitation, Gaspar spoke for all the agencies and said, “please consider prosecution.”