NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — When a charismatic man handing out AARP information told Paula Gilmore he could help her manage her finances and earn more money, she took him up on it.
However, things weren’t as they appeared. After about 10 years of handing over money for investments, Gilmore, who was now 85, had lost nearly $230,000. Instead of investing the money as he had promised, the funds were deposited into the man’s personal bank account.
“He said he could make her a lot of money in a real short period of time,” said Amy Nix, Gilmore’s daughter. “What happened was he made a lot of money in a short period of time… She had nothing left. He even tried to get her to cash in her retirement account.”
According to court documents from the Department of Commerce and Insurance, there were 17 victims in his nearly decade-long scheme to defraud clients as the owner of a now disbanded insurance agency in Brentwood. Like Gilmore, many were elderly and vulnerable adults.
“He picked on people that were older, that were more vulnerable,” Nix said. “He’s a super scammer. He’s got the charisma and the polish… They know how to do it very well. Some people can’t tell, like my mom. She just trusted him totally.”
Financial crimes against elderly, neglect on the rise
Those 17 people are not alone. Wire fraud and other forms of elder financial abuse continue to impact high rates of seniors across Tennessee. In 2021 alone, seniors lost more than $32.5 million to financial scams, according to the Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference.
“We’re seeing so many of these so often and it’s really horrible,” said Brittani Flatt, Assistant District Attorney for the 20th Judicial District. “I think with the uptick in social media and with electronics and the internet, it’s just a whole lot more prevalent, and we don’t want it to be.”
It’s a part of a trend in rising elder abuse, which also encompasses physical abuse and neglect. Flatt, who works nearly 100 cases a month as a part of the Vulnerable Adult Protective Investigative Team, said she has noticed an uptick in financial and neglect cases in recent years.
“Sometimes these people are just unfortunately out of their money, and that’s sad,” Flatt said. “That’s sad for people who have worked their whole life to have a savings.”
According to data from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, wire fraud involving victims over 65 jumped 35% last year, and fraud by computer hacking rose 92%. Fraud by false pretenses against seniors is up 19% since 2017.
Romance and gift card scams have been some of the most prevalent in the recent uptick of scams targeting seniors, Flatt said. Scammers will request payment through gift cards because they have fewer protections for buyers compared to some other payment options.
“A lot of gift card scams, they’ll say, ‘Hey, send this amount of money in gift cards.’ We’re seeing a lot of that,” Flatt said. “If somebody calls you and says, ‘Hey, you need to send us $10,000 in gift cards,’ you should be alarmed.”
While Flatt said many financial crimes stem from foreign countries, making them difficult to prosecute, some also take place within the victim’s own home. Family members will sometimes try to exploit seniors who can no longer handle their own finances because of their health.
“They have no idea about their finances,” Flatt said. “So, they’ve got that family member who is overseeing that money that’s many, many times taking their money and using it for their own personal benefit.”
‘He fed her head with a bunch of garbage’
Although not family, the scammer who targeted Nix’s mother took over control of her finances in a similar way. After they met, Nix said he became very controlling of her mother’s finances. He began stopping by her house and even gathering her mail.
“He would gather her mail about once a month and he’d open up all that stuff,” Nix said. “He would write her a check, to her, and say it was a dividend. She didn’t even notice that it was a Chase check from her own account because she didn’t have availability to the account.”
Like other victims, Nix said he convinced her mother to take out a reverse mortgage, even though her home was paid off, and pocketed the money. He also cashed in her life insurance policy and collected the annuities.
Nix said she became suspicious early on. However, even after pointing out inconsistencies, Nix said her mother continued to allow him to have control over her finances. He was able to manipulate her to a point where she was keeping everything secret from her family.
“There was no reason for my mom not to trust me,” Nix said. “What fueled that was that (he) was telling her ‘It’s none of their business. Don’t tell them because then they’ll start taking from you.’ So, he fed her head with a bunch of garbage.”
That type of secrecy creates a gap in reporting. According to the National Council on Aging, some studies suggest that only one in 24 cases of elder abuse are reported to authorities.
Flatt said cases of elder abuse go unreported “all of the time” because many seniors may feel too embarrassed to reach out for help. Some also don’t want the perpetrator to get in trouble, especially when it is a family member.
“Same thing in the financial cases, really a lot of family members that I see where the victim will say ‘I don’t want to get them in trouble’,” Flatt said. “But you still have to live. You have to be able to pay your own bills, and that’s your money.”
‘She was just shocked’
It all came crashing down for Nix’s mother in August 2015, when two men with FBI badges showed up at her house. She called for Nix to come over and the FBI agents explained that she was being scammed and could possibly lose her house.
“When the FBI told her, ‘Mrs. Paula you’re probably going to lose your house if you stay here longer,’ all the blood went out of her face,” Nix said. “She just turned white. I thought she was going to die on me right there. She was just shocked.”
Once an active and healthy woman, Nix said her mother’s decline was very sudden after she learned the man was not who he said he was. Nix said the following months were very stressful for her and her mother.
“It was so hard on her,” she said. “It just made me more angry at this guy.”
Her mother began having trouble remembering things and experienced a small stroke that left her with a facial droop. She passed away six months later. A burial plot was left next to one of her children buried in Chattanooga, but there was no money left to transport her to the site.
“We didn’t have any money to even bury her,” Nix said. “We had her cremated. None of us kids could afford the transport. The burial was already paid for, but we couldn’t get the transport done. It was really expensive.”
When and how to report elder abuse
Nix is now vocal about elder abuse to help prevent others from going through similar experiences. Nix and Flatt advise consulting a friend or family member before clicking on a suspicious link, providing someone with access to a bank account or sending them money.
“I think the best way to try and start combatting that is just to get the word out,” Flatt said. “Pick up that phone, knock on the neighbor’s door and say, ‘Hey, this is really strange’ before you do anything. Or pick up the phone and call the bank.”
Flatt said signs of financial abuse often include a sudden inability to pay rent or a mortgage, or for other basic needs like groceries and utilities. There may also be signs of a person or family member exercising control over their finances such as taking money out of their account.
“They’re just sitting there listening while this person is like ‘We need to get this amount of money from the account’,” Flatt said. “That’s suspicious behavior when they’re not really involved.”
Some signs of neglect include physical or cognitive decline and limitations, improper hygiene and poor living conditions. Flatt said physical abuse often becomes apparent when unusual bruising or cuts begin appearing on the victim.
Those who have reasonable cause to suspect an adult has suffered abuse are required by law to report it to Adult Protective Services in Tennessee by calling 1-888-277-8366. Callers may remain anonymous. Reports can also be made online at www.reportadultabuse.dhs.tn.gov.
“That’s really how to get the ball rolling,” Flatt said. “People call me all the time and say, ‘I think so and so may be having some money taken from them. They’re not paying their rent. They’re not paying their bills. What do I do?’ And I’ll say, ‘You need to file a report ASAP’.”