Police stretched to catch financial abuse

This article was published in the Victoria Times Colonist November 27th 2011.  To see this story and to read related stories on the Victoria Times Colonist website, please click here.

As police budgets are spread thin across the country, education is being looked at as the best weapon in the fight to prevent elder financial abuse.

“We’re right up against it. Resources will never keep up with the need,” said Det. Rick Anthony, fraud investigator with Victoria police. “All we can do is combat it with knowledge and get the word out there.”

Anthony, one of only two fraud investigators in the Victoria department – he estimates there may be only a dozen of them between RCMP and municipal detachments on the Island – said while police forces deem fraud and elder financial abuse to be as important as robbery and physical crimes, it just doesn’t get the manpower.

“The perception is fraud is a white-collar crime,” he said, noting the more violent and in-your-face crimes in the region tend to get the manpower resources.

Anthony said while some police forces in the country have established elder abuse task forces or teams – ranging from one investigator to a team of 10 – Victoria police are forced to leave that type of crime with the fraud department.

The same is true with the RCMP, which tends to investigate cases of elder financial abuse at the detachment level, though if the fraud is deemed significant and complex enough, as in the case of former Victoria investment advisor Ian Thow, it can be kicked up to the commercial crime division.

“Nobody ever thinks they have enough resources, it’s one of those bottomless buckets we could pour resources into forever,” said Sgt. Tim Kreiter, operations support officer with the RCMP’s commercial crime section. “I’d gladly see more resources, but there are only so many slices to the pie and we have to work with what we have.”

Susan Eng, director of advocacy for the Canadian Association of Retired Persons, said her organization has been pushing for a more comprehensive strategy for dealing with elder financial abuse, including improved resources for police forces.

“Elder financial abuse is difficult in that it requires expertise and investigative support that isn’t readily available to most police forces,” she said, noting across the country the support infrastructure is piecemeal at best. “If a police force has a unit, it is often poorly resourced. We need special investigators.”

CARP has also advocated an easy-to-remember national hotline with someone at the other end of the line with specialized skills able to respond, proper investigation and prosecution resources at the provincial level and tougher sentencing.

“Let’s first acknowledge this as a public scourge,” she said. “We need to bring out the spousal abuse template again and modify it for elder abuse.”

But even with all the resources in the world, Kreiter said stopping and preventing elder financial abuse is very difficult, unlike other infractions that could be prevented by police presence – patrolling school grounds, parks or parking lots near pubs and nightclubs.

“That sort of deterrent prevention is very hard when it comes to fraud,” he said. “That’s why education is the biggest preventative measure. If we can alert people to the risks and direct them to the resources; if we can educate them so when they get a letter saying ‘you’ve won $1 million, just pay us $18,000 in taxes and fees,’ they will realize it’s a scam.

“If we can educate one person they will tell two people, and so on.”

But another problem with elder financial abuse is it’s often hard to prepare people for it.

“It’s hard to educate people about that in advance because you don’t expect those nearest and dearest to you will rip you off,” he said.

The RCMP, other police forces and seniors resource agencies have established online and printed materials to arm seniors and vulnerable people with information to avoid being taken in by scams or to find help if they feel they are the victims of abuse.

Kreiter said one of the biggest problems police have is the fact most of the cases of elder financial abuse go unreported.

“That’s because it tends to happen within the family, and people are very reluctant to turn on family,” he said, noting the victims often fear being left alone and may depend on family for care and support.

Kreiter also noted the reports tend to come well after the fact.

“Often, it’s after another family member has become involved in care, or the victim is dead and the family is settling the estate and the other siblings find there is no estate and funds have been misappropriated,” he said.

Anthony said over the last 10 years he’s seen instances of elder financial abuse and fraud increasing steadily, and noted with a growing population of seniors the problem is going to get worse.

Kreiter said some of that increase may be due to improved awareness, which he argues is a good thing given awareness and education are keys to prevention.

©  The Victoria Times Colonist