Utah leaders working to protect Utah's elderly population from abuse, scams

On World Elder Abuse Awareness Day Thursday, several organizations who focus on the needs of Utah's elderly population gathered in a virtual conference to discuss the problems with elder abuse and ways to help prevent it.

On World Elder Abuse Awareness Day Thursday, several organizations who focus on the needs of Utah's elderly population gathered in a virtual conference to discuss the problems with elder abuse and ways to help prevent it. (Ponsulak, Shutterstock)

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SALT LAKE CITY — A total of $15.9 million has been lost to fraud schemes in Utah just this year, according to a report from the Federal Trade Commission's Sentinel Network. Out of the top 10 report categories, imposter scams ranked the highest — with over 1,300 reports filed under losing money to those pretending to be someone else.

Utah's elderly are the most susceptible to these scams, according to Douglas Crapo, director of the White Collar Commercial Enforcement for the Attorney General's Office. In fact, in 2022, Adult Protective Services investigated more than 4,000 cases of vulnerable adults allegedly being abused, Gov. Spencer Cox noted in a video statement.

On World Elder Abuse Awareness Day on Thursday, several organizations who focus on the needs of Utah's elderly population gathered in a virtual conference to discuss the problems with elder abuse and ways to help prevent it.

"We want a state where all Utahns can age and live safely. Aging can expose older adults to mistreatment, including abuse, neglect and exploitation," Cox said in a video played at the conference. "While financial exploitation is the No. 1 allegation investigated in Utah, cases of elder mistreatment are frequently complex, involving multiple types of allegations."

Crapo continued by noting that there were a particular set of disturbing abuse allegations, such as a case in which a man, David Bryce Jones, had power of attorney and was found guilty of using his father's money to open a restaurant, rather than to continuing to care for his father's needs while he lived in a nursing facility.

But it's not just lawsuits and other allegations that harm elders. The most common form of abuse is typically imposter calls, online scams and even Ponzi schemes, according to Katie Hart, director of the Division of Consumer Protection.

Susceptibility to online fraud

"The older humans get, the more they trust people. And that sounds OK, so the economy is just relying on more and more trust; in fact, that's the bedrock of the economy. We would not be a cooperating society without it," Crapo said.

But there is a downfall to this trust — Utah's elderly are much more likely to fall prey to financial scams because laws and cultural ideas of safety have changed since their era, Crapo continued.

Many scams involve others sending suspicious links via text or email pretending to be a trusted company or person, Crapo added. Because Utah's elderly have learned to trust those businesses, but not necessarily learn the rules of phishing or scamming, they may give away private information.

"As the economy's advancing quickly, older people aren't going to have the same old rules to guide them because the world's changing," Crapo said.

Romance scams are also quite common, with suspicious characters pretending to be romantic partners on dating apps or calls and obtaining information that way, according to Special Agent Kevin Luke, a member of the Federal Bureau of Investigation's SWAT team.

Due to Utah having large faith communities, elderly Utahns are also more likely to trust in friends' and neighbors' Ponzi schemes, Luke said.

"It's often a no-brainer for (the elderly) to want to invest some of their money or, as they would look at it, help someone else," Luke said. "We have several cases — and that is not to disparage faith nor this specific faith — but several cases where individuals have taken advantage of the elderly in this scenario because of either their position and/or placement in their church."

Hart also noted how Utah elderly are particularly susceptible to door-to-door salesmen and false charities.

"People here are extremely nice, and they have a really hard time saying no," Hart said. "If there's one thing I could just ingrain in everybody is that it's not rude to say no — it is OK to say, 'Not right now.' It is OK to have boundaries."

Preventing future abuse

To best prevent future scams or fraud, Hart encouraged families and their elderly members to practice setting boundaries ahead of time so that when a door-to-door salesman comes, they can decline any push to provide their information.

Utah's elderly may also feel ashamed after falling prey to a scam or fraud, so they may avoid talking about it with their children or grandchildren, Hart added. To help them have a safe space to speak about their financial situation, their loved ones should ask questions and open up about their own mistakes.

"They don't want to tell their children that it happened to them because they're worried that their children won't trust them anymore to take care of themselves," Hart said. "It helps us to talk about some of our own personal experiences when talking to them so that they understand that this can happen to everybody."

Many times, the elderly get scammed through imposter calls — such as someone pretending to be one of their loved ones and asking for help. Hart advised that family members should establish "safe words" with their parents or grandparents to help them know if someone else is impersonating them on the phone.

Luke added that sometimes the best way to determine public corruption or fraud is to ask elderly family members direct questions about any of their suspicious medical or financial relations.

"How do we prevent the elderly from clicking on something or from selecting something? We stay present with them," Luke said. "It's staying present with them, asking them the questions: 'Who are you talking to? Who have you talked to recently? Are you keeping in close contact with those people that you know?'"

While the battle to stop elder abuse is far from over, Utah is making progress, Crapo said.

In fact, Luke noted that, according to federal reports, Utah ranks 30 out of 50 states for the number of abuse victims age 60 and above, with Utah having 741 victims and California ranking first with 11,517 abuse victims.

The organizations present in the virtual conference planned on continuing to work together to prevent further elder abuse, but individual family members and elderly individuals can still work to eliminate any further mistreatment.

Hart advised family members and concerned elders to file fraud complaints with the Utah Division of Consumer Protection or to voice their concerns at the Elder Fraud Hotline.

"We're excited to stop it," Crapo said. "We're moving forward to make sure that (scam artists) can't practice anywhere else in the United States."

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Kris Carpenter is a student at Utah State University in Logan, Utah.


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