Washington State

Office of the Attorney General

Attorney General

Bob Ferguson


Guest column, Mercer Island Reporter 

June 9, 2009

If you regularly peruse the Mercer Island Reporter’s police report, you have probably noticed the trend of fraud targeting seniors. Some of the crimes are new. For example, the “Grandma Scam,” in which a young‑sounding person — often overseas and always posing as a grandchild — makes a breathless phone call pleading for an urgent wire transfer to pay a medical bail or to post a jail bond.

This is a growing problem, especially for Islanders. The United States is in the midst of a huge demographic shift with a third of our population reaching retirement age in the next few years. On Jan. 1, 2006, baby boomers began turning 60 at the rate of one every 7.5 seconds. Criminals target this growing population because seniors are more vulnerable. Seniors are more likely to be isolated or in poor health, while possessing more assets than the general population. The most pernicious of these crimes involves the financial exploitation of seniors by family members or friends who abuse the relationship, sometimes using a power of attorney, in order to steal assets. The stories are commonplace now, often involving a senior struggling with dementia while a friend or family member drains her accounts and maxes out her credit cards.

If you live on Mercer Island, you or your parents face a higher than average risk of being exploited. Island residents are somewhat older than the overall population and are thus more likely to be caring for an older parent. The median age of Islanders is about 44, compared to the national median of 37. The Island also has a larger than average number of seniors. About 19 percent of the Island’s population is of retirement age, compared with about 13 percent of the country as a whole.

During the recently concluded legislative session, my office proposed new protections for vulnerable adults. We called for training to improve the ability of bank and credit union employees to identify and report financial exploitation, and to grant them permission to “freeze” an account if potentially criminal activity is suspected. We advocated for tools to better allow the public to access information about potential caretakers, along with stronger punishments for those who abuse or exploit seniors. Unfortunately, legislators chose not to enact these protections, even though our bill had strong bipartisan support.

We’ll be back next session to push for these protections for our most vulnerable citizens. Meanwhile, there are a few things you can do to protect yourself or your loved ones. If you suspect abuse, you can call DSHS Adult Protective Services at 1-866-ENDHARM (1-866-363-4276). You may also call local law enforcement. If the vulnerable adult has been financially exploited, it may be advisable to meet with an elder law attorney to discuss protective measures ensuring that the exploitation does not occur again in the future. These measures can include a durable power of attorney or full guardianship through the court system.

As we approach National Elder Abuse Awareness Day on Monday, June 15, let’s pledge ourselves to do more to protect those who cared for us when we were young — our parents and our grandparents. They’ve earned it.

To find out more about protecting vulnerable adults, visit the Attorney General’s Web site at www.atg.wa.gov.