Aging Matters: Elder fraud frequently underreported 

Barry Weber (left) found out after his mother passed away that she had been a victim of fraud.
Barry Weber (left) found out after his mother, Sylvia Lee Weber, passed away that she had been a victim of fraud.
Courtesy of Barry Weber

Robert Weber, almost 70, and his younger brother Barry were caught off guard when they learned that their now deceased mother had been a victim of fraud. It was even more disturbing when they found out the perpetrator was their youngest brother.

Bryan Weber was a former UF assistant professor when he was arrested in 2021 on charges of exploitation of the elderly, racketeering, grand theft and scheming to defraud. Bryan had become the sole trustee of his mother’s estate in 2015.

Robert and Barry both live on the West Coast. Both came to Gainesville frequently to visit their mom, although it wasn’t until their mother passed away in 2019 that Robert and Barry became aware of the problem.

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“The elder abuse of our mother was primarily financial. Mom received good physical and mental care up till the end, thanks to the patience of Oak Hammock and the IRS, both of whom were owed substantial sums of money,” Robert said. “Consequently, neither Barry nor I had reason to question her financial situation because everything looked to be running smoothly.”

Robert said the case eventually ended with the recovery of some of the money, but Bryan Weber was still sentenced to 12 years in prison for stealing $2.2 million from his mother.

“My hope is that the article you are writing will forewarn others to keep track of all aspects of the affairs of an elderly person to forestall the unpleasant surprise that we encountered,” Robert said.

Experts say embarrassment often prevents victims of fraud from reporting crimes.
Shutterstock Experts say embarrassment often prevents victims of fraud from reporting crimes.

Elder law attorney Shannon Miller and her firm, Miller Elder Law, handled the Weber case. Her aim is to end elder abuse and fraud as part of her practice. She freely gives out advice to the community when she attends public events like a recent health fair sponsored by Touching Hearts at Home at the Senior Recreation Center in Gainesville.

Miller advised those present not to answer calls from unknown people, and if they mistakenly do so, to get off the phone as quickly as possible.

“The longer you stay on the phone with that person, the more valuable your information becomes on the dark web,” she said. “Every time you stay on the phone, the value of the dark web goes up. Your information can and will be sold. One of the most important ways to avoid this is not to pick up the phone.”

Miller also outlined a new tool in Florida: the possibility of getting an injunction against a trusted person who is now suspect.

“You can freeze assets when you think exploitation is occurring,” she said.

Attorney Shannon Miller and her firm, Miller Elder Law, fight elder abuse and fraud.
Courtesy of Shannon Miller Attorney Shannon Miller and her firm, Miller Elder Law, fight elder abuse and fraud.

In a recent report, AARP said the financial exploitation of older adults has more than doubled since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020. The data show only one in 44 older adults report an incident where they have been financially exploited. They are particularly unlikely to file a fraud report when they have been victimized by someone they know and trust, because they are embarrassed.

Jilenne Gunther, lead author on the report and national director of AARP’s Bank Safe Initiative, said in a news release that she encourages older adults to file complaints when they think they may have been victimized.

“We need more consumers to report these possible crimes so we can better quantify how large and impactful they are, but equally important is that we help the industry spot and stop financial exploitation before the money leaves the account,” she said.

According to a 2021 FBI report on elder scams, more than 92,000 people over the age of 60 reported losses of $1.7 billion to the agency’s Internet Crime Complaint Center. And that’s just what gets tracked online.

One of those trying to hold financial fraud at bay is Todd Rovak, CEO and co-founder of Carefull, a financial protection service. The service is for financial caregivers, adults over 55, and the adult children who help them with daily money matters.

“Our job is to be a technology second set of eyes for older adults,” Rovak said. “We look at credit cards, bank accounts, we look at home titles. We guard all these things.”

Rovak, worked for years developing products for banks, but found that everything was for millennials or Gen Z, with nothing for older adults except for senior accounts. He wanted to change that.  

Shutterstock Area attorney Shannon Miller suggests not answering phone calls from unknown people to avoid scammers and getting off the phone quickly if you do answer.

“Elder fraud is a massive problem, because it’s not as simple as being scammed, which is what most people think about,” Rovak said. “Most of the fraud comes from within the trusted circle— someone with access to this person who moves money in ways they shouldn’t. This causes what we at Carefull call ‘systematic drain’—the slow movement of money out over time—and it’s nearly impossible to get back.”

Close monitoring of accounts can help with more than just holding onto money. Rovak said Carefull uses artificial intelligence to look for things—even spotting signs of Alzheimer’s and dementia.

Rovak pointed to a Johns Hopkins study that found cognitive problems can first be diagnosed in the wallet, six years before it is diagnosed in a doctor’s office.

“We can see it in missed payments, credit score hits, or someone buying the same thing over and over again,” he said.

Carefull CEO Todd Rovak
Courtesy of Todd Rovak Carefull CEO Todd Rovak.

The federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau says family members and those a victim trusts steal more than twice as much money as strangers.

“They need to understand that these crimes can happen to anyone,” Kathy Stokes, AARP director of fraud prevention programs, said in a news release. “It’s not their fault.”

In North Central Florida, organizations like Elder Options are also trying to deal with the problem.

Amy Thomas, director of community care coordination, said elder abuse covers a lot of areas, including “people who are abused, neglected and exploited. But elder abuse is drastically underreported.”

Thomas said her team is always trying to encourage seniors to report abuse.

“The best thing we can do is try to put measures in place ahead of time,” she said. “It’s hard to think about. But we can look for that trusted guardian. We can talk to an attorney. You can seek education to protect yourself and your assets.”

Exploitation also can occur online through romance scams, where the amount taken from unsuspecting older adults went up by more than 500% from 2019 to 2021—reaching $547 million—according to AARP.

Star Bradbury of Gainesville-based Senior Living Strategies says she considers dating sites to be fertile ground for scams.

“Someone poses as an available partner, suddenly develops a relationship, and [their target] genuinely falls in love with this person, who they may not have ever met,” Bradbury said.

When the scammer feels he or she has their victim hooked, the real danger begins, Bradbury said.

“They start asking for money for themselves, for their children,” she said. “Anytime they start asking for money, it’s a red flag.”

Editor’s note: This is the eighth story in Mainstreet’s Aging Matters series. It was independently reported by Ronnie Lovler and underwritten by Elder Options. Some reporting was made possible by Lovler’s acceptance as a fellow into the 2022 Age Boom Academy, a program of the Columbia Journalism School, the Robert N. Butler Columbia Aging Center, and the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health.

Elder Care Resources
Florida Abuse Hotline—call 800-ABUSE (800-962-2873). The Florida Abuse Hotline accepts reports 24/7 regarding abuse,
neglect or abandonment of children or vulnerable adults.
Long-Term Care Florida Ombudsman Program—call 888-831-0404 or 850-414-2323.
o   Volunteer ombudsmen advocate for residents’ rights for those who live in long-term care facilities.
Elder Helpline—call 800-963-5337. Statewide public access to a statewide database of local community resources.
Elder Options Helpline—1-800-262-2243. It connects older adults, adults with disabilities and their caregivers to support
services in our community.
Law Enforcement—call 911 or Combined Communications Center for Gainesville Police Department and Alachua County
Sheriff’s Office at 800-962-2873.
Statewide Senior Legal Helpline—call 888-895-7873. Legal advice and referrals to residents of Florida aged 60 and above.
AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline: 877-908-3360—Operates Mon-Fri., 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. ET.

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