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Legally Speaking


Issue: December, 2007
Author: Dorothy Thomas

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Protecting the Elderly and Vulnerable Adults From Financial Fraud and Exploitation

Under current Wyoming law, a vulnerable adult is defined as any “person eighteen years of age or older who is unable to manage and take care of himself or his money, assets or property without assistance, as a result of advanced age or physical or mental disability.”

In a recent study it was noted that Adult Protective Service agencies substantiate more cases of financial abuse than physical abuse, and nationally, financial exploitation was identified as the fastest growing crime against vulnerable adults with minimal success in prosecution of the perpetrators. Criminals often exploit the victim’s vulnerability, diminished judgment, frailty, and perhaps lack of family support. Previously it was felt to be a crime against the lonely and isolated, but is now evidenced to target the socially active and well educated, as these victims are far more “attractive” to the criminal element, and a far more profitable group of individuals to exploit.

Financial exploitation can include any of the following:
• Illegal or improper use of a vulnerable adult’s funds, property or assets
• Cashing checks without authorization or permission
• Forging a signature
• Misusing or stealing a person’s money or possessions
• Coercing or deceiving someone into signing documents, such as a contract or a will
• Improper use of conservatorship, guardianship, or Power of Attorney

Wyoming law defines “exploitation” as the reckless or intentional act taken by any person, or any use of the power of attorney, conservatorship or guardianship of a vulnerable adult, to:

(A) Obtain control through deception, harassment, intimidation or undue influence over the vulnerable adult’s money assets or property with the intention of permanently or temporarily depriving the vulnerable adult of the ownership, use, benefit or possession of his money, assets or property; or

(B) In the absence of Legal authority:

(I) Employ the services of a third party for the profit or advantage of the person or another person to the detriment of a vulnerable adult;
(II) Force, compel, coerce or entice a vulnerable adult to perform services for the profit or advantage of another against the will of the vulnerable adult.

Within the State of Wyoming we are all mandatory reporters and this includes financial institutions that often alert the individual or report to the Department of Family Services/Adult Protective Services. It is the primary role of financial institutions to protect assets, prevent losses and safeguard consumer information, and they are often in a very good position to detect behavior changes and to assist in protecting their customers from financial exploitation.

The most common type of financial exploitation is theft of income and is generally less than $1,000; however, a growing concern is that of the theft of assets and this can be a very extensive loss to the individual and his/her family. Examples of this theft are those associated with power of attorney, real estate transactions, identity theft and tax manipulation.

Abuse by strangers may present itself as unsolicited work (i.e. yard work, in-home services), Internet scams, identity theft, telemarketing scams, fictitious relative, fake prices, Internet sales, stop foreclosure scams or investment property. Abuse also occurs by relatives or caregivers and these individuals have a position of trust and an ongoing relationship with the vulnerable adult. Incidents may be taking the victim’s money, borrowing money and not paying it back, forging a signature, soliciting additional money to offset a low salary for services, transferring title on, or re-encumbering property.

Again, in that we are a mandatory reporting state, pursuant to W.S. §35-20-103(a), “Any person or agency who knows or has reasonable cause to believe that a vulnerable adult is being or has been abused, neglected, exploited (to include financial exploitation) or abandoned or is committing self neglect shall report the information immediately to a law enforcement agency or the department (Department of Family Services).”

In July 2007 our statutes in Wyoming will included further clarification of financial exploitation by adding that abuse is also defined by the “acceptance of a legal obligation or responsibility to the vulnerable adult through a power of attorney, advanced health care directive or other legal designation.”

It was the intent of the state legislature to strengthen these definitions in an effort to be more effective in prosecuting perpetrators of these crimes.

If you have questions specific to this article or would like the information presented to your group or agency, please contact Dorothy Thomas, State Consultant for Adult Protective Services at (800) 457-3659, or (307) 777-3602.

Dorothy Thomas is presently the State Consultant for Adult Protective Services with the Department of Family Services. She has a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Social Work and English and a Paralegal Degree from the Denver Paralegal Institute. She has served on the Elder Abuse Task Force and Planning Commission (Colorado) and has continued to provide training to service providers, direct care staff, law enforcement, families and communities on the issue of the abuse, neglect and exploitation of vulnerable adults. In partnership with Wyoming Adult Protective Services, Ombudsman and the Aging Division, a training module (2005) was developed and made available to communities and state agencies supporting outreach and education relative to abuse, neglect and exploitation. Dorothy is also a volunteer paralegal and volunteer with Hospice.

Copyright © 2007 – Wyoming State Bar