Andy Ho, Senior Writer

Law needed to protect the elderly from scams

Given S'pore's rapidly ageing society, the chance of seniors falling victim to financial abuse is real

Are the elderly in Singapore increasingly at risk of being financially scammed?

Old people make good targets for financial abuse. It's as basic as that. All the more so if widowed and living alone as this makes them socially isolated, giving scammers easy access without any third-party scrutiny.

The cognitive impairment that comes with ageing can make the elderly very vulnerable indeed.

This is when the brain-based skills which enable a person to understand the world and act in it have begun to deteriorate and adversely affect the elderly person's thinking, memory and decision- making.

It may also prevent the person from seeking help, getting out of a bind or fighting for herself.

Not all seniors are cognitively impaired, of course, but it is generally true that one's memory and information-processing capacity tend to decline with age.

And then there is dementia, which is due to an irreversible degeneration of the brain. In dementia, the mental processes of knowing, reasoning, remembering and judging become progressively impaired. Dementia makes the elderly "easy meat" for scammers.

This issue has been in the spotlight over the past month since news broke about an ongoing legal tussle involving a wealthy 87-year-old widow and a tour guide from China. The case is being investigated by various authorities, with no conclusions yet.

Given Singapore's rapidly ageing society, the possibility of the elderly falling victim to scammers and predators is a real one.

A large 2004 study of elder financial abuse cases reported to state governments in the United States found that cognitively impaired seniors who were lonely, forgetful, depressed or anxious were the ones most likely to be exploited.

A study by the New York-based MetLife Market Institute in 2011 found that scammers targeted elderly people perceived to be vulnerable. They looked for signs like parking permits for the handicapped, or an elderly person looking confused at the bank, supermarket or even in church.

The 2011 MetLife Study of Elder Financial Abuse showed that, typically, a scammer first befriends his target and may even become her caregiver. Over time, the elderly person may hand her assets over to the scammer.

With Internet banking, scammers can deplete the bank accounts of their elderly victims online.

The MetLife study found elderly women twice more likely to be scammed since wives tend to outlive their husbands, who may have handled all the family finances. For some women, widowhood may well be the first time they have to make financial decisions.

The study also found that even when they have been deceived into parting with their assets, such transfers can look like gifts or loans, though they were undoubtedly manipulated into doing so.

Particularly egregious cases or common ruses reported in the study included that of Cher Thompson, 29, who married Mr Howard Zeimer, 64, in 2009. She then stole US$50,000 (S$63,600) from the bank accounts of Mr Zeimer, who was physically and mentally handicapped. Also in 2009, using the same ruse, she cheated dementia patient John Grant, 90, of US$60,000.

In Miami, Gordon Novak and Wendy Sue were arrested in January 2011 after they faked a kidnapping to extort money from Sue's elderly mother.

Many victims of elder financial abuse seem to have an irrational trust in the scammer, almost as if they have fallen under a spell.

This is because a specific brain area that tells us to "be wary" doesn't fire off as much in older people as in younger adults. This was shown in a brain imaging study conducted in 2012 by University of California, Los Angeles researchers. They found that this specific brain area gave off a much weakened warning signal in seniors confronted with an untrustworthy face.

Another 2012 study found that a different brain area deteriorates in older people, the effect of which is to make them more likely to believe false information.

In sum, seniors are more easily scammed because changes in the brain make them more vulnerable.

Tragically, however, many a victim may not even appear to be cognitively impaired. In such cases, third parties like lawyers, judges, police or doctors may consider them to be competent adults who gave away their assets freely.

Such a scenario may arise because mental competence is not "all or nothing". An elderly person may have a spectrum of competencies, being competent in one area but subtly incompetent in another.

In fact, even the best psychological tests may not detect the subtle cognitive decline found in the early stages of dementia. In such cases, the victim could well be ruled to be of sound mind.

When an elderly victim does become aware that she has been exploited financially, she may be too embarrassed to admit it. She may also not ask for help, not wanting others to think she is now unable to judge or decide for herself.

Though victimised just once, she may not need a guardian yet but may fear being forced to accept one if she files a complaint. The MetLife study estimated that four in five cases are not reported.

Moreover, if the scammer is a family member - especially an offspring - the victim may be too pained or ashamed to report the offence, thinking she might not be believed or fearing she may be shunted off to a nursing home. She may fear that the scamming offspring could be jailed. Who then to perform her final rites?

Relatives, friends or neighbours may also decline to report such abuse if they deem the victim to be still competent, who can make a report herself if she wanted to.

Delays in reporting could hamper an investigation, especially if the scammer has time and opportunity to induce or coerce witnesses to not testify against him.

This is an area in which seniors need advocates in Parliament, which ought to pass a specific law to deal with elder financial abuse. Doctors, social workers, lawyers, bankers and clergy could be mandated under such a law to report suspected elder financial abuse.

Such a law should also make it easier for victims to recover their assets. Given the rising numbers of elderly folk here, we may need this law much sooner than we think.

andyho@sph.com.sg