Is it really not a crime to scam an elderly person by "borrowing"?
August 8, 2023 6:10 PM   Subscribe

The police say it's not. The victim is over 90, lives alone, and is bizarrely, unrealistically certain that the handyman/scammer is going to pay back the fifty-thousand-plus dollars that they have "lent" him, and that it is a good idea to give him even more. The police refused to take a report, saying it's not a criminal matter. I'm looking for opinions and anecdotes to help us process the situation.

I'm not looking for legal advice here. (We will be speaking to a lawyer as soon as possible.) We're not imagining that our relative will ever see the lost money again. Note that this is in the US, in the state of Maryland.

The two hardest things to deal with are that this is a relative who has always been very careful with money, so it's entirely uncharacteristic, and that we are afraid that the scammer will manage to get more money out of our relative, until it's all gone, in spite of the precautions we are trying to take.
posted by anonymous to Law & Government (15 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
The police refusing to take a report doesn't necessarily mean it's not a crime. I would look into resources about "elder abuse" (which includes financial exploitation.)
posted by needs more cowbell at 6:18 PM on August 8 [24 favorites]

If you are in the US please call your local adult protective services which is more designed to help. Though it really depends on how alert and oriented the 90 year old is about these things and if they are willing to engage in some way.

You may be able to speak to some sort of senior advocate about pressuring the police into pressing charges. It would help if you had power of attorney and documentation that this person is non decisional, but adult protective services can investigate without those documents.

They likely don't have much power in getting the money back, but they can work to create a plan so it cannot happen again. They may be able to give guidance on police reporting.

Here is an fbi brochure with guidance and resources as well pdf
posted by AlexiaSky at 6:46 PM on August 8 [8 favorites]

Call Adult Protective Services for his local area - they are the experts in elder abuse which includes financial exploitation.

If your relative is considered mentally competent and he is perfectly happy with the arrangement then I could see why the police wouldn't get involved. After all, I can loan $50k to whoever I wanted and as long as both myself and recipient were happy with the deal there is no basis for a third party to get involved.

If your relative is considered mentally competent, then he is in charge of his own money and you will need to work with him if you want to have any influence over his spending. If you think that he is not able to make these decisions, you might have to doctors and judges involved in having him declared mentally incompetent and appointing a third party conservator. A headache in the best case but very difficult if the person being conserved objects. You can get professional advice from both your lawyer and APS to figure out if that should even be considered.
posted by metahawk at 6:55 PM on August 8 [11 favorites]

A few decades ago, my sibling forged checks in an elderly relative's name to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars, IIRC. The bank told her that in order to get the money back, she'd have to file a police report. She, ordinarily quite miserly, didn't want to but eventually did press charges, largely because other relatives convinced her to. The take I got was that because she wouldn't even acknowledge the forgery at first, and she wasn't in poor mental health, there wasn't much anyone authoritative could do until it was confirmed that some crime had taken place. She didn't consider herself a victim. She had other means and didn't share a household with the sibling. I truly think she would have just let it go if other people had not intervened.
posted by sm1tten at 6:57 PM on August 8 [1 favorite]

Hi anonymous, I'm BlueSock, a cop in a medium sized Canadian city. What metahawk said is pretty much correct.

The closest likely crime here is fraud, which in Canada requires "deceit, falsehood or other fraudulent means". The problem with your scenario is that the facial excuse for the money moving is a loan, which is really hard to disprove, because it would require some proof that the handyman intended never to replay the loan. On the other hand if the money was paid for work that was never done or something like that it would be a lot easier to prove. It would probably still fall on the civil side of the civil/criminal scale, but you'd be closer at least. Short of some history of doing so or the guy being dumb enough to come right out and say it to the cops, this would be almost impossible to actually prove in court.

The refusing to take a report thing could be B.S., but whether that means refusing to make a report AT ALL or refusing to GIVE YOU a report is a somewhat subtle distinction. If there's no record of your call at all that's probably B.S. and in my agency would get the officer in trouble. On the other hand if there's an internal report that says effectively "attended to anonymous residence and met with anonymous-senior and determine it was a civil issue" then that's probably fine (for internal professional standards definitions of fine).

This is all the say that the law is a blunt instrument and cases like these fall into the grey areas that politicians and policy makers can't or won't sort out. I have heard of case of a roofer being charged with fraud for accepting deposits with no intention of doing the work, but the guy told the client to f-off and (key detail) there were two basically simultaneous reports to the police, which helps to establish a pattern.

I'm sorry you have to deal with this.
posted by BlueSock at 7:06 PM on August 8 [8 favorites]

Someone relieved my dad of a life-changing amount of money. He believed her shtick. At the time he would have “passed” the tests around competency, despite suffering from a form of dementia that doesn’t immediately affect memory (but does affect decision making).

I told the police we had a paper trail; they said, unless my dad signed an affidavit saying the scammer lied to him about the “business deal”, we couldn’t do a thing. Not one thing. “People have the right to make bad decisions” is what we were told umpteen times.

If you suspect dementia, get a judge to order a capacity assessment, and either apply for guardianship or have a guardian appointed.

Thing is if your dad can draw a clock and has decent short term memory he might just “pass” it.
posted by cotton dress sock at 7:55 PM on August 8 [4 favorites]

I used to work for Adult Protective Services. Unless the elderly person has been found lacking in capacity and conserved such that someone else has control of their finances, they get to make decisions that look ill-judged to their family or anyone else.
posted by less-of-course at 8:28 PM on August 8 [2 favorites]

Are there any papers to document the loan?
posted by JohnnyGunn at 8:40 PM on August 8 [1 favorite]

Seems like the poster may be wondering more about to converse with their relative. A couple of possible approaches: Advise him that he can totally make these loans, but remind him that when banks make loans, they have the lender agree to a repayment plan and ask for collateral. Tell him, handyman guy is a good person, of course, so he'll agree to signing a piece of paper, right? Or play the grandkids card -- remind them that you personally don't care about the money, but don't you want to be taking care of your grandkids? (That has worked for us in a similar situation with our family.)

If you want to approach it from the other angle, consider calling the Maryland attorney general's consumer protection division. A good friend worked as an investigator for the same office down here for the Florida AG and told me he was always taking calls and opening files about all sorts of scammers, and said that just contacting said scammer often put an end to things. Quick web searching indicates that the Florida office has a broader scope than its Maryland counterpart, and this might not qualify as a case. You could call and inquire. You don't want to make a false report, but you could tell handyman guy that you're considering reporting him. He may not know the particulars, and no one wants their name on the AG's radar. Might be enough to chase him off.

A friend of mine had to deal with a situation similar to what cotton dress sock faced. A woman latched on to his father late in the father's life. Before he died, he added her to his bank accounts. She was also using the bank account status to try to claim his retirement accounts. She had been living in the house and was claiming some sort of right to it as a common-law wife. The will was messy; can't really go into details.

My friend hired a good lawyer, who did some research and found she had done this before. The lawyer set a meeting between the three of them, and the lawyer basically threatened to rain down all sorts of legal woe on her and tie up things for years. She backed off, and settled for the money she had drained from the bank account - a small enough part of the estate that my friend declared victory and moved on. A different situation to the poster's, as their dad is still living. But it still might be worth having the lawyer contact the handyman and put him on notice.
posted by martin q blank at 9:03 PM on August 8 [9 favorites]

I'm sorry to hear your relative is likely being taken advantage of like this.

I had a 'similar but different' situation when in the UK.

The scammers were clearly scamming with all the false information they gave, behaviour, etc, and it was obvious they had no intention of paying at the end of the service period, but police insisted that technically they didn't commit a crime until the payment was due at the end of the service period. So I couldn't do anything until they left without paying at the end.

I asked to file a report anyway with the information I had / false names / appearance / previous attempts using the same false company info as guarantor (who said they'd been contacted before about these scammers after they hadn't paid) / etc.

The police failed to do a search for similar scamming by matching people in the region, until only after both had left mid-way (after I confronted the couple with how all the information they'd given me so far was false).

Only after then, did the police actually check for similar, and found a pattern of at least 5 other cases matching their description locally, and that they were wanted. But by then it was too late physically.

The police did track them down about a year later, and I recovered about 1/3 of what it directly cost me.

But tl:dr
To me there's a good chance this scammer has done this before, and there may be records & a pattern. So get as much identifying information as you can to at least log it, and hopefully get that searched for similar cases in the region.

Even if it's not a crime yet to your relative (ie payback terms of the 'loan'), there's a chance it has already become overdue to someone else and they may already be wanted for questioning.
posted by many-things at 10:51 PM on August 8 [3 favorites]

Following on to martin q blank's answer: this year, the IRS gift exclusion is $17K per donee. Of course your relative would want their generous loans to the handyman in writing, to avoid IRS scrutiny and possible tax obligations.
posted by Iris Gambol at 1:27 AM on August 9 [4 favorites]

Also: if he is involving his bank (either withdrawing cash or getting a bank check or wiring money), they *may* be a resource in a limited fashion. As a bank teller, I know that it is ultimately the customer’s money, but management does advise me to be on the lookout for customers who may have fallen prey to a scam or who may be being coerced when withdrawing large amounts of money, and to talk things through a bit with them (for example: oh, you’re wiring money to your nephew who has been in an accident, did you talk to him on the phone or just get a message on an app. Why don’t we call him to confirm before we send it? Etc.).

If you are not on an account obviously they cannot discuss anything with you or even confirm that he has accounts there, but you could inquire generally about whether they have any policies to help prevent their customers from being scammed and share that this may be happening in your area.
posted by needs more cowbell at 2:23 AM on August 9 [3 favorites]

Mod note: Comment removed. Please assume the OP's intentionsare good.
posted by Brandon Blatcher (staff) at 5:18 AM on August 9

I used to work for Adult Protective Services. Unless the elderly person has been found lacking in capacity and conserved such that someone else has control of their finances, they get to make decisions that look ill-judged to their family or anyone else.
posted by less-of-course at 8:28 PM on August 8 [1 favorite +] [!]

This has been my experience making APS reports. Having said that, I think there is a value in having this concern documented by a public agency, and APS in particular. For example, if this relative becomes the victim of a series of scams, it would be helpful to making the case to APS that they should intervene if they can look back on this record.
posted by latkes at 9:13 AM on August 9 [1 favorite]

AARP has a number of resources related to scams that target seniors. You could:

Check out their scam map to see a list of scams that are going around.
You could call their fraud watch help line to get advice.
You could read and share this article about protecting a loved one from fraud and scams.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau also has tons of resources so does The Justice Department. Contact your local District Attorney's office to find out what resources they have around frauds/scams targeting seniors.
posted by brookeb at 3:09 PM on August 9 [2 favorites]

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