Fight­ing cons against the el­derly

In Vir­ginia, a surge in scams but not in prose­cu­tions

The Washington Post Sunday - - OPINION -

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.

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