Wednesday, October 1, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Financial Fraud: A Big Risk for the Elderly

Financial Fraud: A Big Risk for the Elderly

Detecting the problem

 
Financial crimes against the elderly are widespread - and apparently increasing. These crimes are considered to be difficult to detect because enforcement is spotty and the victims often are in no position to protect themselves, or even to report the crime.

Lola DiStefano, 89, gave control of the family restaurant to a lawyer she had known for only a short time.
Lola DiStefano, 89, gave control of the family restaurant to a lawyer she had known for only a short time.

Frail and childlike, 89-year-old Lola DiStefano fingered a yellow legal paper and glanced back and forth at her lawyers as she struggled to remember what she owned. The documents she signed gave control of the cafe to a lawyer she'd known only a few weeks. A videographer recorded the proceedings in an effort to ward off potential legal challenges. But the taping had the opposite effect.

New Jersey's Office of Attorney Ethics appears to have had numerous opportunities to resolve the many allegations against Michael Kwasnik and potentially spare other Kwasnik investors and legal clients harm. But it passed on those chances.
 

Geriatrician and social scientist Mark Lachs says that only a tiny percentage of elder-fraud cases ever come to the attention of authorities. (Photo by Adrian Kinloch)
Geriatrician and social scientist Mark Lachs says that only a tiny percentage of elder-fraud cases ever come to the attention of authorities. (Photo by Adrian Kinloch)

"If this were a disease, we would probably say it is an epidemic," says Mark Lachs a leading expert on financial and physical abuse of the elderly. Among his sources of inspiration when it comes to his research: Memories of the loving grandfather who taught him how to ride a bike and throw a baseball.

Recounted Alfred Assaiante, 92, of Merchantville: "I said, ‘I will listen, but I don’t know what the hell you are talking about.’ " (April Saul / Staff Photographer)
Recounted Alfred Assaiante, 92, of Merchantville: "I said, ‘I will listen, but I don’t know what the hell you are talking about.’ " (April Saul / Staff Photographer)

Alfred Assaiante says he took comfort knowing that he planned to leave money to his church, his emotional bulwark. Then he wrote checks totaling $775,000 to an estates and trusts lawyer. And that's the last he saw of his money. What he didn't know: The lawyer already was under investigation.
 

Photos of Michael Kwasnik released by the Dothan, Ala., police department on Nov. 9, 2011, the day of his arrest. <br />
Photos of Michael Kwasnik released by the Dothan, Ala., police department on Nov. 9, 2011, the day of his arrest.

Police in Dothan, Ala., said they arrested fugitive Philadelphia lawyer Michael Kwasnik on Wednesday on charges that he had stolen $1.1 million from an elderly Cherry Hill widow.

Philadelphia lawyer Michael Kwasnik was charged by New Jersey law enforcement authorities with stealing $1.1 million from an elderly Cherry Hill woman who had hired him to manage her funds and plan her estate.

 

New Jersey Attorney General Paula Dow has sued Philadelphia lawyer Michael Kwasnik and others, accusing them of orchestrating a multimillion dollar Ponzi scheme that depleted elderly investors' retirement accounts.

Michael Kwasnik denies the accusations of impropriety. (Michael Wirtz / Staff Photographer)
Michael Kwasnik denies the accusations of impropriety. (Michael Wirtz / Staff Photographer)

In a new series of fraud allegations against Philadelphia lawyer Michael Kwasnik, a bankruptcy trustee in Wilmington contends that he participated in transactions that improperly drained more than $1 million from a failed investment company where he served as general counsel.

Clifford Frater, a retired electrician who trusted one lawyer with $800,000, said of him: “He is a very smooth talker.” (Ed Hille / Staff Photographer)<br />
Clifford Frater, a retired electrician who trusted one lawyer with $800,000, said of him: “He is a very smooth talker.” (Ed Hille / Staff Photographer)

Several retirees say they regret the day they met a Philadelphia-based lawyer accused of misappropriating their money, using it for investments that did not take into account their own financial needs. A state investigation is being pursued.

The website My Retirement Paycheck is recommended for help with spotting and protecting yourself against investment fraud.
The website My Retirement Paycheck is recommended for help with spotting and protecting yourself against investment fraud.

David Lerner Associates is in hot water with regulators - and elderly investors have been caught up in the turmoil. So, here are some tips for older investors, or someone in your family who might be a target for an elder-scamming investment fraud.

Attorney John D. Jordan discovered theft from one of his senior clients by another lawyer.
Attorney John D. Jordan discovered theft from one of his senior clients by another lawyer.

Gladys Willard died at 97, leaving her estate to the Salem County church where she and her husband had long been members. Church leaders trying to find out what was left in Willard's estate hit a brick wall. It turns out that proceeds from stock sales were largely missing. But $40,000 had gone to legal fees. 

Rose Kogen at 84 in 1991. In later years, she became vulnerable to fraud.
Rose Kogen at 84 in 1991. In later years, she became vulnerable to fraud.

Rose Kogen turned for tax advice to her lawyer, who talked the 91-year-old woman into granting him power of attorney. Then he placed all of her stocks and bonds, along with the proceeds from the sale of her house, in an irrevocable trust under his control - and out of reach of even her children.

Lawyers specializing in wills and estates used to play secondary roles, especially at larger firms. That is changing, with the increase in the number of people - those posing as investment advisers, in addition to even relatives of the elderly - who are finding ways to part the elderly with their life savings.

Pennsylvania Securities Commission
  • Michael Byrne, chief counsel of the Pennsylvania Securities Commission, joined Philly.com on Sept. 19, 2011, for a discussion of financial fraud against the elderly. Here is a transcript of the chat.
  • A video from the Pa. Securities Commission, The Elderly and Investment Fraud, gives some of the indicators of possible fraud, but also explains why the elderly become more vulnerable to it. Watch it here.
Comprehensive study on Elder Abuse


A 2009 study conducted by the New York City Department for the Aging, the Weill Cornell Medical Center of Cornell University, and others found that the statewide rate of abuse was nearly 24 times greater than the number of cases reported to social service and legal authorities.

 

The abuse was categorized as neglect, financial exploitation, verbal and emotional abuse, and physical abuse.

 

Psychological abuse was the most common form reported by agencies; financial exploitation topped the list of self-reported incidents.

 

Applying the incidence rate found in the study, the authors suggest that 260,000 older adults had been subjected to abuse in the state in a 12-month period spanning 2008 and 2009.

 

Read the report

Where to turn for help

 

Dozens of social service and law enforcement agencies in the Philadelphia region focus on financial crimes or exploitation involving the elderly. 

 

Each of Philadelphia's suburban counties has an office on aging that can respond to allegations of exploitation or theft as well as other forms of abuse, in many instances by referring the matter to the district attorney. The Pennsylvania State Department of Aging runs a 24-hour hotline where instances of abuse and neglect can be reported: 800-490-8505.

 

New Jersey's Division of Aging and Community Services offers help online as well as at 1-800-792-8820.

 

In Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging investigates allegations of abuse. Investigators at PCA's protective services unit can be reached 24 hours a day at 215-765-9040.

 

Following are other agencies or institutions that assist exploited or abused seniors:

 

Pennsylvania

 

The SeniorLaw Center: A nongovernmental agency in Center City, the center focuses on providing seniors with legal representation on issues ranging from housing to concerns about financial exploitation and fraudulent business practices. Contact 877-727-7529.

 

Bucks County Area Agency on Aging: 30 E. Oakland Ave., Doylestown 18901. Phone: 215-348-0510.

 

The Chester County Department of Aging Services, Government Services Center, 601 Westtown Rd., Suite 320, Box 2747, West Chester 19380-0990; 610-344-6350.

 

The Delaware County Office of Services for the Aging, 206 Eddystone Ave., Second Floor, Eddystone 19022-1594. Protective services can be reached at 610-490-1300.

 

The Montgomery County Office of Aging and Adult Services operates an elder abuse hotline: 1-800-734-2020 from its central office at Central Office at 1430 DeKalb Pike, Box 311 Norristown 19404-0311.

 

New Jersey

 

The Burlington County Board of Social Services/Adult Protective Services Program (main county page): Human Services facility, 795 Woodlane Rd., Mount Holly 08060; 609-261-1000.

 

The Camden County Board of Social Services, Adult Protective Services, (main county page) 600 Market St., Camden 08102. 856-225-8178.

 

The Gloucester County Board of Social Services (main county page): 400 Hollydell Dr., Sewell 08080; 856-582-9200.

Watch List


The Senior Law Center, which is assists the rights of Pennsylvania's seniors, advises that seniors take an active role in their financial affairs, monitoring statements and asking questions. Four areas that are ripe for financial exploitation:
 

1. Power of attorney. This can stem from lack of supervision or lack of attention in choosing the person.

2. Joint bank accounts. Problems can be detected if you review bank statements carefully.

3. Deed transfers. Once you sign over the deed, you no longer own the property.

4. Credit card fraud. Always know where your card is.

Learn more at the Senior Law Center site.

 

Questions that could help uncover fraud:

1. How is your money management going?

2. Does your money last the month?

3. Are you worried about any recent financial moves?

4. Have you assigned anyone power of attorney?

5. Is anyone trying to get you to change your will?
 

From the Clinicians's Pocket Guide created through Baylor College of Medicine.