Philly DA Krasner’s new unit to prosecute elder financial abusers

By Erin Arvedlund

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner is forming a new unit in his office focusing on financial elder exploitation cases, noting the problem strikes close to home: His own father-in-law was targeted by a “grandparent scam.”

“The guy called and said my son, Nate, his grandson, was in jail and needed $2,500. My father-in-law, a career military guy, almost fell for it, but my mother-in-law fortunately intervened,” Krasner told a crowd Friday at the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia convened for World Elder Abuse Awareness Day. The confab included many members of the Philadelphia Financial Exploitation Prevention Task Force, headed by Joe Snyder, which hosted the event.

Krasner and Noel Ann DeSantis, assistant district attorney, are forming a crime victims’ advocacy council and special prosecutors’ unit to go after predators of the elderly. Financial exploitation can take the form of sweepstakes scams, phony IRS agents, grandparent and romance scams, and guardian misconduct. One estimate puts the damage at over $130 billion per year, said Linda Mill, a certified fraud examiner with Ally Bank.

A typical abuser is “a soccer mom, not who you would think. But these older women are typically the main caregivers in the family,” Mill said.

“Most are women aged 30 to 59 and are family members with a POA,” or power of attorney for their elderly relative or neighbor. Rita Wynegar of York County, Pa., pleaded guilty to theft in 2012 after stealing $240,000 from her great-aunt Lidia Coito between 2007 and 2010 through her power of attorney. The thefts came to light when the elderly woman found herself facing eviction from a personal-care home for nonpayment. Her niece had drained her accounts and installed a swimming pool in her backyard.

DeSantis recently prosecuted a 60-year-old woman, a decades-long con artist, who forced an 87-year-old South Philadelphia woman into a bank to withdraw $600 — her entire savings account. An alert teller notified security, but the victim didn’t press charges until months later at Christmastime, “when she finally told her sister she couldn’t buy gifts.”

“Always call the police and file a report,” DeSantis said, no matter how small the amount of the theft. “That creates a case number for us which is sent to SeniorLAW Center and CARIE,” the Center for Advocacy for Rights and Interests of the Elderly in Center City. (DeSantis was the prosecutor on the Meek Mill case).

Tellers and bank managers often act as front-line advocates for seniors: one employee in DNB First’s wire department questioned a customer asking to wire money to a stranger.

“I asked her why she was sending money to someone she didn’t know, and she was cagey. I told her that it was probably a scam. We turned down the wire,” she told the audience of bankers, financial professionals, and attorneys. Another bank customer, with a Ph.D., was asking to send money to “pay for winning a contest,” said Linda Johnson, compliance officer and fraud investigator at Ardent Credit Union.

“She was very smart, but she was lonely,” Johnson said.

Bankers often aren’t believed by customers who are being targeted by a scammer — so it’s helpful to point clients to articles such as “Are You Real?” by AARP, a survey that explains common impostor frauds against seniors.

“Sometimes I point people to YouTube videos of common scam recordings, and often that triggers them into realizing it’s them who are the target,” said Dana Goldberg, head of the Senior Law Center. “I had one woman in my office for three hours until she had her ‘a-ha’ moment, because no one wants to admit being a victim.”