As Arizona’s elderly population grows, law enforcement and prosecutors are seeing an increase in the number of incidents of exploitation and abuse against older people.
“People tend to think, ‘It’s never going to happen to me or to my loved one,’” said Rae Vermeal with Arizona Department of Economic Security’s Adult Protective Services.
But just in the past decade, reports of elder exploitation in Arizona are up nearly 50 percent, the agency says. In Pima County, they’re up 18 percent. (See “An Aging Population,” A4)
Sometimes older adults are targeted through telemarketing and email scams. But the most common way seniors become victims of exploitation is through the greed and malevolence of those closest to them.
“About 90 percent of the time it’s family members or caregivers,” said Angel Guzman, also with Adults Protective Services. “They feel entitled. That’s the unfortunate thing.”
Guzman said the agency regularly investigates incidents where family members entrusted to care for aging or disabled relatives liquidate the person’s bank account, change wills or access inheritances early.
“It’s still a crime to take your inheritance early,” said assistant Arizona Attorney General Jesse Delaney, who prosecutes many cases of vulnerable adult and elder abuse.
Delaney said perpetrators, whether family or hired caregivers, will often seek power of attorney over an elderly victim and then use it to run roughshod over the person’s finances.
Delaney sometimes sees abuse by private caregivers hired to look after an elderly or vulnerable adult.
“They find jewelry and pawn it or find checkbooks and forge checks,” she said.
The private-care industry has few regulations in place to help prevent the exploitation of vulnerable individuals, she said.
“We’re putting people who have never been screened into the homes of the most vulnerable people,” she said.
State law does not require background checks of people hired through the growing number of private-sector companies that provide in-home care for the elderly.
Employee screenings are conducted for state-run care facilities.
Delaney said she has prosecuted several caregivers who have past convictions for elder exploitation but continue to work in the field unabated.
She said the Arizona Attorney General’s office has been putting more resources into education and prevention of elder exploitation and has lobbied the Legislature to require background checks for people working in the care industry.
A case now in Pima County Superior Court represents one of the largest incidents of exploitation local prosecutors have seen. A woman is accused of bilking an elderly man out of more than $2 million.
The victim had become friends with the defendant, Donna Iman, who convinced him to pay for a series of expensive life-saving surgeries she supposedly needed.
Iman, who has since pleaded guilty to fraudulent schemes and artifices and faces sentencing later this month, never had the medical conditions she claimed, said Assistant Arizona Attorney General Doug Clark, the prosecutor in the case. Instead, she took the victim’s money and bought a home, property to build a new house, luxury clothing and had breast augmentation surgery.
“The victim in this case thought he was saving her life,” Clark said. “That’s what makes this so much more egregious.”
Delaney said exploitation and abuse cases often are difficult to investigate and prosecute because the victims may have limited mental capacity or feel reluctant to come forward out of embarrassment or a lingering loyalty to the perpetrator, who may also be family.
“The biggest problem we have is under-reporting,” Delaney said. “At the end of the day, these are the most vulnerable people in our population.”