HARRISBURG – A new Department of Aging report shows “alarming” and frequent financial exploitation of seniors in Pennsylvania.

Close to 1,500 cases were substantiated in the studied 2017-18 fiscal year, and losses were estimated to exceed $58 million.

That number is likely far short of the true cost of financial exploitation of seniors in Pennsylvania, the study notes. Researchers estimate that only about one in 44 cases ever comes to light because victims are rarely willing to alert authorities.

“The results of this study are eye-opening and alarming. Financial exploitation is an underreported crime that not only harms its victims, but also has a corrosive effect on Pennsylvania’s fiscal health, as older adults whose income and assets have been drained by this crime are more likely to need assistance from publicly funded programs,” said Secretary of Aging Robert Torres.

The report found that most often, the victims of financial exploitation were women, and the average age of the victim in the 441 cases examined for the report, was 79.

Other findings:

• In 65% of the cases, the perpetrators of the fraud were relatives;

• In 42% of the cases, the fraud was committed by adult children of the victims and in 10% of the cases, the perpetrators were adult grandchildren;

• Close to half of the victims, 43%, lived alone;

• The average lost in the cases studied was $39,395.

“Often, and heartbreakingly so, older adults are exploited by those they trust and depend upon most,” Torres said.

Those figures are similar to the findings in other states that have examined the issue, according to the Department of Aging’s review.

In New York, a review of financial exploitation of seniors found that family members were to blame in 67% of the cases and adult children were to blame in 36% of the cases.

A Utah study revealed that family members were to blame in 72% and adult children were at fault in 47% of the cases.

The report found that unauthorized cash withdrawals constituted the largest percentage of total loss, with more than $5 million or 46% of the total sampled cases lost to withdrawals via ATM, debit card use and checks.

Bank overdraft fees were found in 35 cases with an average loss of $1,000 in fees alone.

The Department of Aging studied cases in Bedford, Berks, Bucks, Chester, Dauphin, Fayette, Fulton, Greene, Huntingdon, Lancaster, Lehigh, Philadelphia, Washington and York counties.

Torres said the study was launched in response to Gov. Tom Wolf’s July 2019 executive order directing state agencies to reform their efforts to better protect vulnerable populations.

Over the past five fiscal years, reports of elder abuse in Pennsylvania have increased from 24,413 cases in fiscal year 2015-16 to 36,101 cases in fiscal year 2018-19.

Financial exploitation was the fourth most substantiated form of abuse during this same period.

Torres said that based on the reports findings, the Wolf Administration is calling on the General Assembly to pass Senate Bill 819, which passed the state Senate unanimously last October, but has not moved in the state House.

The legislation would seek to make it easier for doctors and other health care providers by providing an easier mechanism to report suspected elder abuse. It would also provide more tools for banks to intervene if there are indications of suspicious activity; and streamline communications between agencies that care for seniors.

State Sen. Robert Mensch, R-Montgomery, authored the bill and on the floor of the state Senate described it as the culmination of five years work by lawmakers consulting with experts and advocates.

“Older Pennsylvanians should have the ability to live their lives free from the threat of abuse and neglect. I believe it is our responsibility to put measures in place to safeguard their health, safety and financial security,” he said.

In addition to that legislation, Torres said the state intends to update regulations to call for improved training for protective services workers to recognize suspected financial exploitation.

The state will also create an inter-agency team to try to remove barriers interfering with efforts to intervene to help seniors who are being victimized.

John Finnerty is based in Harrisburg and covers state government and politics. Follow him on Twitter @CNHIPA.

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