Reyes says the predator is usually someone new on the scene--a stranger, an acquaintance, a family member who before spent little or no time with their elderly relative. Typically, this newcomer's personal finances are shaky.
Soon, the newcomer's financial situation dramatically improves, while the victim's bank balance declines. This, says Reyes, is the onset of financial ruin for the elder.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday May 14, 1998 Home Edition Life & Style Part E Page 3 View Desk 3 inches; 74 words Type of Material: Correction
Elder abuse--The story "Disrespecting Our Elders" in Wednesday's Life & Style prompted numerous queries about how to report elder abuse and where to get more information. Here are some additional resources:
* In Los Angeles County, call the Elder Abuse Hotline at (800) 992-1660.
* To report elder abuse at long-term care facilities in Los Angeles County, call the Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program at (800) 334-9473.
* For information about services for seniors, call the Los Angeles County information line at (213) 738-4004.
"If law enforcement doesn't intervene quickly, the elder can lose everything," says Reyes.
"We're not talking about people who are so demented they just lie in bed and don't recognize people," says psychiatrist Blum.
"We're talking about the person whose ability to quickly grasp concepts and think strategically is impaired even slightly. This person can be manipulated, even if their memory is intact. If there's a slight memory impairment, it makes manipulation all that much easier."
Intelligence and sophistication of the elder don't seem to matter in such cases, Blum says.
"I've worked on several cases where the victim was mentally intact, physically healthy, intelligent--retired CEOs and retired university professors," Blum says. "They marry women two to five decades younger than themselves. They'll admit to their families and investigators, 'I know she just wants my money, but that's better than being alone.'
"What they don't realize is that when the money's gone, so is the perpetrator. I've seen it happen in less than a month--a couple of weeks, even."
Criminals have discovered that stealing from elders is easy and relatively safe, Reyes says. Some learn about it in prison, he adds.
"There are the cons who come out of the joint and become care providers. Believe me, they're doing it. We had one who starved a person to death and inherited $1.5 million."
Or they go to a place where they can strike up a conversation with a well-heeled and lonely elder--church, the supermarket, a bus stop and, especially, a bank.
"Usually, the perpetrator's approach is very subtle," Reyes says. "They'll ask for directions and, you know, 'Can you show me where that is?' They'll use that as an excuse to take them out to lunch or send them a bowl of fruit out of gratitude."
"A lot will use children as props," Harned says. "The kid will say, 'Oh, you're so nice, you remind me of my grandfather. In fact, you're nicer than my grandfather.'
"They take him to Disneyland. They visit him. They take a lonely man and bring him into their family unit."
Soon there's news of a "crisis" in the perpetrator's family, one that only money can solve. They're going to lose their house or business. The child needs a critical operation. Could they borrow $50,000? The elder feels obligated.
"After he turns over the money, he never sees them again," Harned says.
Still, all agree the more common predator is the opportunist--an acquaintance, a neighbor or family member who can't resist temptation or doesn't even try.
"I do believe that with some of the perpetrators, there are times when they actually think they're doing the best they can and it's OK," says Rebecca Guider of Orange County's Adult Protective Services.
"They believe they're entitled to the money. It's going to be theirs when Mom's gone anyway, and they're just using it now. It's amazing how people's principles, if they had any, can be compromised once money becomes a factor."
But Reyes says it's not hard to see through such rationalization. It comes down to where the money's going, he says. Is it being spent on the elder, or is it feathering the relative's nest? "It's not that hard a call."
Whether perpetrated by strangers, friends or relatives, the crimes usually follow a pattern, psychiatrist Blum says.
The elder is befriended, then isolated. Mail and telephone calls are intercepted, and neighbors, friends and family are told the elder doesn't want to see them.
A sort of brainwashing begins. The predator panders to the elder's fears, usually of being sent to a rest home, and portrays him or herself as the elder's only true friend.
Finally, the predator gains access to the elder's bank accounts and real estate. Sometimes the documents are forged, but most often the elder signs willingly.
"This whole pattern is basically what cults do to their victims," Blum says. "It's the formation of a mini-cult."
This pattern was officially acknowledged as a crime in 1986, when the state penal code was amended to impose stiffer-than-usual penalties for caretakers and others "in a position of trust" who steal from or defraud someone 65 or older.
The following year, the LAPD became the first to assign a detective solely to fiduciary elder abuse.
More than a decade later, California law enforcement as a whole remains "grotesquely undertrained and understaffed" to deal with this often subtle crime, says Blum, a member of both Los Angeles and Orange County FAST.