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Why Few Of The Millions Of Elder Abuse Cases Get Reported Each Year


Millions of elderly Americans are financially exploited each year. But what's the total cost of that fraud? One estimate - 37 billion a year. According to reporter Nick Leiber, that's probably low because for every case reported to authorities, as many as 44 are not. He wrote about this for Bloomberg this week, and he joins me now. Welcome to the program.

NICK LEIBER: Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: Your story begins with a woman named Marjorie Jones. She was 82. She was living in Louisiana. She lived alone, and she was legally blind. What happened next?

LEIBER: Marjorie Jones started to receive phone calls. She was promised she'd won the sweepstakes. She simply needed to pay the taxes and fees. She started to do this. I think the scammers realized they had a live one, and they tried to get as much money out of her as possible. She essentially went through all of her life savings. And then realizing I think what had happened, she started to try to borrow money from family members. And then she gave up, and she killed herself.

CORNISH: This is one of the more difficult stories in your reporting, but it's not uncommon - right? - that people suffer in silence.

LEIBER: This is very common. Scammers who are professionals tell the victim to keep this a secret from all of their family members. You know, these are people who are worried that they'll lose their independence. If you know that your mom or your dad gave a few hundred or a few thousand dollars to someone who turns out to be a scammer, you might think, you know, they shouldn't be living alone; they shouldn't be as independent as they are. And they worry that they will lose this independence, so they keep it quiet.

CORNISH: Talk about this issue of it happening within families.

LEIBER: So one study showed that about 60 percent of these kind of financial abuses to older people - the perpetrator is a family member. And it's something that I think is really hard to talk about, and many people don't talk about it. One reason that a victim wouldn't talk about it is they don't want to send their son or daughter to jail. Another reason is because they could be threatened physically. They could be threatened with neglect - i.e., I won't feed you; I won't give you your medication. I heard one example of a family member saying, I'm not going to give you your dentures that you need to eat unless you give me the money. This also happens over time. It's not like TV. It happens over months or over years.

CORNISH: Just a few months ago, the Justice Department announced it was charging more than 250 defendants in elder fraud cases. There is actually also a law on the books - right? - the Elder Justice Act, which was passed back in 2010. So is there movement on this as an issue, or do you see there being policy action?

LEIBER: I don't think much is going on. Almost everyone I spoke to in terms of prosecutors and other practitioners said more money needs to be appropriated to try to prevent elder abuse from happening.

CORNISH: So there are rules on the books but not money to back them up.

LEIBER: Exactly. There isn't enough money to research, to prevent, to train people to recognize and deal with this epidemic.

CORNISH: In the end, how significant is this a problem given the demographics - right? - that we are looking at a generation - the baby boomers - that is going to be vulnerable to this abuse?

LEIBER: We live in an aging society. I mean, a lot of older Americans are isolated, and it's easy for this to happen - particularly easy for this to happen as boomers age and scammers and others recognize that these folks have trillions in assets that they can help themselves to with little repercussions.

CORNISH: That's freelance reporter Nick Leiber. He wrote about the cost of fraud that targets the elderly for Bloomberg. Thanks for coming on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

LEIBER: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.