It should come as no surprise that criminals target victims who are innocent, disabled, or vulnerable. Unfortunately, this includes our senior citizens. In fact, communities across the country have seen a rise in the abuse and exploitation of older adults.

Elder abuse is against the law in Georgia and is something we take very seriously in Cherokee County. These crimes occur when malicious individuals commit financial exploitation scams specifically targeted at elderly adults and also happen when trusted family members, friends, or caregivers intentionally harm seniors, fail to provide needed services for them, or steal assets from older adults in their care.

How to prevent elder abuse

Becoming aware of the types of crimes perpetrated against seniors is one way to prevent becoming a victim yourself and to ensure that the people you care about do not become victims. Elder abuse crimes include financial exploitation, physical abuse, and neglect.

Financial exploitation occurs when criminals use force, threats, or deceit to prevent victims from accessing their own financial resources. These crimes are committed by phone, text, email, and in person – sometimes by strangers and sometimes by people the senior knows and trusts. In most cases, criminals use ploys to steal financial assets from victims or commit identify theft.

Seniors can also fall victim to financial exploitation when family members or caregivers steal money from them, use credit cards or withdraw cash from bank accounts without permission, or take valuables without asking. This crime is often hard to detect and sometimes difficult to prosecute given the relationship between the parties.

When strangers commit financial exploitation, the crime typically involves a scam in which victims intentionally or unintentionally give criminals access to their finances. For example, a criminal might pose as a credit card company employee telephoning an individual to inform him/her that an account has been hacked and ask for personal account numbers. Of course, this is a scam, but many people fall for this tactic.

Another common scam occurs when criminals pose as someone from Social Security, the IRS, or other governmental agencies and claim the senior must pay money or go to jail. Some scammers will go so far as to manipulate seniors by claiming to be a grandchild needing money for an unforeseen emergency. In other cases, con artists pose as door-to-door solicitors selling services, such as pine straw or home improvement scams.

If someone calls, texts, or emails you or someone you know to gain access to financial information or to request payment via gift cards, be very suspicious. Scammers often manipulate victims by posing as legitimate callers. Always think about the likelihood of the request, and talk to a trusted person before responding. If the request is genuine, the caller will be willing to wait for you to verify facts.

Physical abuse and neglect of seniors may occur in long-term care facilities, where a patient is mistreated by a staff member, or it may take the form of domestic violence perpetrated by the victim’s spouse or other family member. Victims may suffer physical, sexual, or emotional abuse. Elder victims may also be deprived of essential medical care, adequate nutrition, hygiene, or a safe living environment. Victims with dementia and serious health ailments are the most vulnerable to physical abuse and neglect.

An older adult with bruises or other injuries may not be able to verbalize what is happening. If you suspect elder abuse, neglect, or exploitation, you should call Adult Protective Services (1-866-55AGING) to report.

How we’re responding

Five years ago, the District Attorney’s Office established the Elder Abuse/White Collar Unit, which specializes in the investigation and prosecution of these types of crimes.

In 2017, the District Attorney’s Office and community partners founded the Cherokee County Adult Abuse, Neglect, and Exploitation Multidisciplinary Team (MDT), which brings together agencies committed to protecting vulnerable adults from abuse or exploitation. During monthly meetings, MDT members discuss reports of abuse and collaborate to ensure seniors receive the services they need.

In the past three years, this MDT has reviewed and responded to 579 cases of suspected abuse or neglect. Cases monitored include: abuse, exploitation via theft of property, exploitation via scam or identity theft, neglect, and self-neglect.

The 48 MDT members represent the following agencies: Cherokee County District Attorney’s Office, Coroner’s Office, Senior Services, and Solicitor-General’s Office; the Georgia Division of Aging — Adult Protective Services; LiveSAFE Resources; and all Cherokee law enforcement agencies. The Cherokee Triad S.A.L.T., which works to reduce victimization of senior citizens, also actively supports this MDT.

You too can help reduce the prevalence of crimes against elders. Be aware of common scams. Talk to seniors in your life and make sure they are safe and making sound decisions. Check on older friends and relatives. If you or someone you know is a victim of elder abuse and in danger, please call 911.

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Shannon Wallace has served as the District Attorney of Cherokee County since 2013. She is a graduate of the University of Georgia School of Law.

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