Fighting cons against the elderly
In Virginia, a surge in scams but not in prosecutions
THE INTERNET AGE has spawned a new generation of confidence games— think of all the lotteries you’ve won courtesy of scamsters in places such as Nigeria. Oldfashioned con artists are hard at work closer to home as well, and not only on the Internet. In Fairfax County, officials report that scams targeting the elderly surged after the economy tanked in 2008. That’s troubling. Even more disturbing is that prosecutors don’t have the tools to bring more than a handful of the perpetrators to justice.
Fairfax police estimate that of every 100 reports they receive from elderly victims of scams, just five or six result in criminal charges. Sometimes, as in some Internet schemes hatched overseas, the bad guys are beyond the reach of prosecutors. Often, though, prosecutors have found that existing laws — on embezzlement, larceny or false pretenses — are a poor fit for crimes that rely on deception, intimidation or coercion to rob elderly people of money, assets or property.
One such scheme involves con artists known to police as “woodchucks,” who appear at the door of elderly homeowners, sometimes those suffering from dementia, and convince them that a tree or branch on their property poses a dire risk. After minimal tree-trimming, the con artists then present the homeowner with a bill for thousands of dollars. In other instances, police say, people armed with power of attorney may victimize elderly relatives, stripping their assets without their knowledge and leaving prosecutors with little recourse under current law.
At the behest of Fairfax police, who have tracked a spike in crimes against the county’s large numbers of well-to-do elderly residents, lawmakers have introduced a bill in Richmond that should make it easier to prosecute criminals who prey on the elderly. The legislation is modeled on laws that have been successfully used by prosecutors in states with substantial populations of elderly residents, including Florida, Arizona and Nevada. It would designate as felonies scams directed at people over 60 and other vulnerable people, including those with mental disabilities.
Police acknowledge that the legislation, if enacted, is unlikely to result in prison time for large numbers of con artists. In a way, that’s to its political advantage, since opponents have raised the objection that more prison sentences mean higher costs to the state at a time of severe budget shortfalls. But the measure would give prosecutors the leverage that they need to force those who take advantage of the elderly to make restitution to their victims. That, at least, is a good start in the direction of securing justice for some of society’s most vulnerable victims.