Avoiding Caregiver Fraud
Elder Abuse happens when a caregiver takes advantage of or targets the elderly, sick, and disabled. A caregiver, loosely defined, is anyone who cares for a person who cannot care for him or herself. The caregiver assists the patient or dependent with activities in daily life.
Thus, caregiver fraud can take the form of physical harm or suffering, endangering of health or body, theft, embezzlement, forgery, fraud, and identity theft, among other misconducts. Caregiver fraud can be committed by paid or unpaid caregivers, and by both licensed caregivers and individuals who deceptively claim to be caretakers. Recent instances of caregiver fraud in California and across the nation have ranged from fraudulent individuals stealing credit cards to posing as medical practitioners and charging exorbitant fees for services never provided.
This steep increase in caregiver fraud should incite elders, families, and advocates to be on guard and aware of the realities of caregiver fraud.
Who Is At Risk?
The elderly, sick, and disabled members of our population make up the majority of those who need and depend on caregiving services. Thus, it is tragically those who are most frail who are also most at risk for being victims of caregiver fraud. Fraudulent caregivers knowingly take advantage of weaknesses, infiltrate the life of the elder and harm the elder for their own gain.
Caregiver fraud centers on abuse of trust and vulnerability of the elder or dependent. When a caregiver enters into the life of an elder, the caregiver usually gains or can gain access to much of the elder’s personal and financial information. Eventually, the caregiver can gain virtually unlimited access to the elder’s personal and financial accounts and records. People who allow caregivers this sort of access are at risk for caregiver fraud.
Types of Financial Caregiver Fraud
Almost any identifying personal information that falls into the wrong hands can be used and manipulated for purposes of identity theft. Seniors and their loved ones must be aware that caregivers are often in prime positions to both obtain and abuse an elder’s personal information.
Identity theft in a caregiver scenario might occur if a caregiver gains access to an elder’s credit card and bank accounts and makes unauthorized or personal purchases using those accounts. In extreme situations, a fraudulent caregiver might use the elder’s financial or personal information to open up accounts or take out loans on behalf of the elder, reaping the profits and leaving the elder with unexpected and wrongfully attributed losses and debt.
Don’t let this happen to you or your loved one. Even the most seamless act of trust can give a fraudulent person all they need to perpetrate massive harm. Lending your credit card or credit card information to a caregiver make a purchase may seem straightforward, but a deceitful caregiver may use that information to commit serious fraud and abuse.
Financial Theft, Forgery and Embezzlement
Because caregivers by definition care for those who are less physically capable, caregivers often have ample opportunity to search for and access an elder patient’s financial documents and records. The financial harm resulting in this easy access can range from theft of petty cash to the rerouting of money from an elder’s bank accounts or retirement funds. Other examples of financial theft include the illegal act of forging an elder’s signatures on checks or manipulating an elder into signing checks or agreements that benefit the fraudulent caregiver at the expense of the elder.
Further examples of financial theft by fraudulent caregivers include embezzlement: when the caregiver is entrusted with paying the elder’s bills and instead withholds that money for his or her own gain. This is not only an instance of theft, but additionally harms the elder by virtue of its negative impact on the service that should have been provided. For example, a caregiver who withholds and reroutes an elder’s Medicare payments not only robs the elder of money, but of medical coverage as well.
In order to minimize the risk of financial theft, forgeries, and embezzlement by a fraudulent caregiver, ensure that financial documents and accounts are completely inaccessible. If your state or disability requires assistance with finances, consider hiring or consulting with a trusted and professional fiduciary; or enlist the help of a trusted family member. All too often, ill-intentioned caregivers prey on the trusting nature of elders to gain access to important documents and information that they then use to commit fraud and financial abuse.
With access to the elder’s personal and financial records, caregivers can forge signatures and create fake documents to steal finances and other property from elders. Allegations of property theft among caregivers who commit financial abuse have ranged from stealing valuable goods to misappropriations of homes and other properties.
Elders who live in relative isolation from other family members or loved ones can be most vulnerable to caregiver theft and fraud. Family members of elders should check in as regularly and as often as they can to ensure that the elder’s property and affairs are in order. A fraudulent caregiver will work hard to create an illusion of trust and competence to the elder and the elder’s family, so it is prudent to double-check and follow up with your loved one’s financial records and accounts as well as their physical surroundings and well-being.
Additional Instances of Caregiver Fraud
Any breach of contract by a caregiver who is paid to care for an elder and does otherwise may constitute fraud or financial abuse. Fraudulent caregivers who financially manipulate elders into paying them for medical or other caregiving services that they do not provide may be guilty not only of financial abuse, but also of neglect and other forms of physical elder abuse. A caregiver or agent posing as a caregiver who encourages the purchase of inappropriate annuities may be committing insurance fraud, and caregivers who inappropriately assign themselves or mislead an elder into assigning them as Power of Attorney are other examples of potential fraudulent activity.
Signs and Symptoms of Financial Caregiver Fraud
It is important to be aware of the following signs that could be indicators of caregiver fraud.
- Attempting to isolate the elder or preventing the elder from speaking to people
- Accessing the senior’s will, real estate, investments, or other financial accounts
- Asking to be granted “power of attorney”
- Withholding mail and other documents from the elder and elder’s family
- Making purchases or withdrawing from bank accounts on the senior’s behalf
- Suggesting medical or other insurance purchases on behalf of the elder
- Suggesting the elder open up new financial accounts or transfer existing ones
What are Some of the Laws Related to Caregiver Fraud?
Caregiver fraud occurs when that individual designated as a caregiver physically or financially abuses the dependent. This form of abuse usually begins with deception regarding the true identity or qualification of the caregiver.
Section 368 of the California Penal Code defines a caretaker as:
- Any person who has the care, custody, or control of, or who stands in a position of trust with, an elder or a dependent adult.
- The same law lists the following as actions against elders that are punishable by law. We may understand these actions to constitute forms of caregiver fraud and abuse:
- Any person who knows or reasonably should know that a person is an elder or dependent adult and who, under circumstances or conditions likely to produce great bodily harm or death, willfully causes or permits any elder or dependent adult to suffer, or inflicts thereon unjustifiable physical pain or mental suffering, or having the care or custody of any elder or dependent adult, willfully causes or permits the person or health of the elder or dependent adult to be injured… or to be placed in a situation in which his or her person or health is endangered…
- Any person who is not a caretaker who violates any provision of law proscribing theft, embezzlement, forgery, or fraud, or who violates Section 530.5 proscribing identity theft, with respect to the property or personal identifying information of an elder or dependent adult…
- Any caretaker of an elder or a dependent adult who violates any provision of law proscribing theft, embezzlement, forgery, or fraud, or who violates Section 530.5 proscribing identity theft…
- Any person who commits the false imprisonment of an elder or a dependent adult by the use of violence, menace, fraud, or deceit…
Thus, caregiver fraud can take the form of physical harm or suffering, endangering of health or body, theft, embezzlement, forgery, fraud, and identity theft, among other misconducts. Caregiver fraud can be committed by paid or unpaid caregivers, and by both licensed caregivers and individuals who deceptively claim to be caretakers.
What Can I Do to Prevent Caregiver Fraud?
Trusting an unknown individual with personal belongings, accounts, and information is a commitment with huge implications. Before hiring a caregiver, be sure to request extensive references and conduct background checks if necessary.
Stay informed about the new caregiver. Make sure other trusted members stay active in the senior’s life and check in with the caregiver from time to time.
Keep personal and financial documents locked up in a private place. There is no need to give the location or combination of these documents to anyone. If you are worried about privacy at home, use a bank safety deposit box.
Problems Associated With Caregiver Fraud
According to the National Council on Aging, losses from elder financial abuse total $2.9 billion every single year. Seniors lose money when caregivers directly steal from them by taking their possessions or coercing a senior into giving away money or other items. Seniors with dementia or cognitive issues could be particularly vulnerable to this type of abuse.
Power of attorney abuse is also a substantial problem, as those entrusted with making financial decisions for seniors could misuse their authority to enrich themselves at the expense of the senior. In some cases, seniors are also convinced by caregivers to change their estate plan, creating long-term problems for beneficiaries after the death of the defrauded individual.
Financial fraud perpetrated by caregivers could cost seniors their homes, their financial security, and their health. An inability to cover the costs of medications or medical treatment due to financial loss from fraud can have a direct and immediate impact on an elderly person. Stress, anxiety, depression, and other mental ailments resulting from fraud can also increase the risk of illness or death.
Caregiver fraud can also take other forms, including posing as a qualified doctor or caregiver and providing dangerous medical services that the caregiver is not actually qualified to offer. Seniors may also face physical damage when coerced into getting unneeded medical care for purposes of billing Medicare. Some could even be physically harmed if a caregiver is charging for services not performed, since the senior will not get the care that the fraudster had pretended to offer.
Criminal Penalties for Elder Abuse
Although elder abuse can and should be remedied through a civil action that allows the victim and their family to seek restitution, the state legislature has also enacted criminal penalties, to ensure that abusers are prevented from carrying out misdeeds in the future.
Through Penal Code 368 the legislature of California has declared that crimes against elders and dependent adults are deserving of special consideration and protection. California Elder Abuse Laws include criminal and private courses of action that protect elders and dependent adults from physical, and/or emotional abuse, neglect, endangerment and financial exploitation.
By the Caretaker
- The caretaker who willfully causes or permits the person or health of the elder or dependent adult to be injured, or
- The caretaker who willfully causes or permits the elder or dependent adult to be placed in a situation in which his or her person or health is endangered
- The caretaker who willfully causes or permits the person or health of the elder or dependent adult to be injured
- The caretaker who willfully causes or permits the elder or dependent adult to be placed in a situation in which his or her person or health may be endangered
As defined in Penal Code Section 368 “caretaker” means any person who has the care, custody, or control of, or who stands in a position of trust with, an elder or a dependent adult.
Punishable conducts by the caretaker require the element of willfulness; the caretaker must have intended to cause harm.
By Any Person
- Any person who knows or reasonably should know that a person is an elder or dependent adult and who, under circumstances or conditions likely to produce great bodily harm or death, willfully causes or permits any elder or dependent adult to suffer, or inflicts thereon unjustifiable physical pain or mental suffering.
- Any person who knows or reasonably should know that a person is an elder or dependent adult and who, under circumstances or conditions other than those likely to produce great bodily harm or death, willfully causes or permits any elder or dependent adult to suffer, or inflicts thereon unjustifiable physical pain or mental suffering.
Under Penal Code 368, the prosecutor has the choice of prosecuting the case as a felony or a misdemeanor, taking into account the defendant’s criminal history and the facts of the case. When the abuse is prosecuted as a misdemeanor, potential penalties may include up to 1 year in county jail and a fine of up to $6,000 dollars, and when it is prosecuted as a felony, the term of the sentence can be increased if the victim suffered bodily harm.
What Resources are Available for Victims of Caregiver Fraud?
The most important way to prevent and counteract caregiver fraud is to report any incidents as soon as you begin to suspect caregiver fraud. Too often, seniors and others are reluctant to report caregiver fraud because of shame, doubt, or other considerations. This reluctance only aids the caregiver to continue committing atrocities, hurting the victims, their families, and putting other potential victims at risk.
As caregiver fraud comes into the public view, several agencies and helplines have come into place to aid caregiver fraud victims and their families. Here are some places to turn to for help:
In addition, call your local police non-emergency line to report any potential thefts of money, property, or goods. Request that an officer be sent out to take a report.
Consult local senior legal assistance programs or departments. The prospect of legal action can be daunting, but there are professionals who specialize in aiding seniors who have been wronged. Remember, reporting these instances of fraud is the most effective way of preventing future harm.