Armstrong: Shame on those who cheat elderly relatives

Mary Mason, a longtime host on WHAT radio, now lives in a nursing home in the Philadelphia area. She suffers from dementia.

There ought to be a special place in hell for those who rip off the elderly.

Philly readers recently learned of two shocking cases of alleged financial abuse of senior citizens — the legendary radio host Mary Mason and the elderly mother of District Attorney Seth Williams.

Authorities allege that Williams, 50,  siphoned off more than $20,319 promised for his 84-year-old mother's nursing care. Prosecutors have charged him with a host of corruption-related offenses that include six counts of wire fraud, saying he used funds intended for his mother, Imelda. She suffers from Parkinson's disease and lives in a facility in Upper Darby.

Just as we were processing that disturbing allegation, we got word that Mason's grandson Calvin Steven Turner IV, 33, was about to be arraigned on charges of bilking her out of more than $800,000 and leaving the 86-year-old destitute.

Both Williams and Turner have pleaded not guilty to their charges.    

These are ugly allegations. Stealing from sick old people is one of the worst things anyone can do.  But it happens a lot. One out of five seniors is victimized in financial fraud by a scammer.   

Turner's attorney, Martin P. Mullaney, told me last week that Mason's grandson had intended to grow her money when he started dipping into her various accounts and liquidating her properties.

But he didn't. Instead, nearly $1 million is missing, about $15,000 of it allegedly spent at a Las Vegas strip club, according to Montgomery County police records. 

DA Williams, meanwhile, is accused of pilfering from the woman who adopted him as a toddler. Imelda Williams had worked as a secretary at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard and received pension and Social Security checks.  The already-beleaguered district attorney also is accused of taking a $10,000 check that friends intended for his sick mother's nursing care.

"If those allegations are true, that to me is the lowest thing that a person can do, steal from your aged and infirm mother," former Philly DA Lynne Abraham said last month. "That just gets me right in the throat.”

Same here. Allegations such as this make me stop and wonder about humanity. If true, how can people do something like that? These seniors work all of their lives and leave their care in the hands of people closest to them, only to be allegedly ripped off and exploited.

It's something I've been thinking about a lot: What if, God forbid, my husband dies before me? Then what? Being sick and elderly and vulnerable to exploitation is one of my worst fears.

"Older folks lose almost $3 billion a year because of financial abuse, and it mostly happens from somebody they know or trust," said Lynnette Khalfani-Cox, a personal financial expert for AARP.

"It's very disheartening," added Khalfani-Cox, who founded AsktheMoneyCoach.com.

Signs of elder financial abuse can include but aren't limited to unexplained bank withdrawals, unpaid bills, and indications that the care being provided doesn't correlate with the size of a person's estate. Outside of buying an in-home lie detector for your prospective power of attorney, what can you do?

Experts I spoke with suggest establishing a checks-and-balance system. Instead of automatically handing over power of attorney to your firstborn, you include a couple of younger siblings as well or maybe some trusted nonrelatives.

Joseph Snyder, director of older adult protective services at the Philadelphia Corp. for Aging, also advises signing up for a professional service such as EverSafe, which allows a third person to get an alert when something happens outside the norm on accounts.

"Anybody can be a victim. Anybody can be a perpetrator," said Snyder, whose agency investigates elder abuse.  (To start an investigation, call 215-765-9040.)

Williams and Turner will have their days in court. If the allegations are true, they had better hope that the old saying about what goes around comes around isn't true.  Because one day, they could be old and helpless, too.