Banks in the state of Maryland are now required to report suspected financial abuse of senior citizens.
Rosetta Skipper met a woman at St. Luke's Catholic Church along East Capitol Street in southeast D.C. in 2007. Skipper's husband had died five years earlier; they had no children, and she lived alone in her northeast D.C. home. Her closest family was in New York City.
Skipper had Alzheimer's disease, and was briefly hospitalized in 2007, as her health worsened. That's when the woman at the church took control of her life and moved Skipper into her own home.
"She had somehow gotten power of attorney done," says Stephen Skipper Jr., Rosetta's great nephew. "We don't know how she did. As soon as my aunt got home from the hospital, it only seemed like two weeks later. This lady, who no one had ever met, was now her caretaker and power of attorney over everything"
Financial exploitation of seniors is a problem that's estimated to cost nearly $3 billion per year. Now, some states -- including Maryland — are trying to put a stop to that abuse. But this type of exploitation is difficult to spot.
Skipper Jr. is able to speak about what happened to Rosetta, unlike his father and the woman from the church, both of who signed a confidentiality agreement after the case almost went to a probate court. Skipper's father was the beneficiary in his aunt's will, and the one who kept tabs on her. But in 2007, he starting having health issues of his own and was unable to check in with his aunt with any frequency.
Rosetta Skipper died in 2011. Because she was a former Pentagon employee, an obituary was written about her in the Washington Post weeks later. That's how her family found out she died.
Dealing with an empty bank account
"We lost Aunt Rosetta and didn't even know it, " says Skipper Jr. "And this woman didn't have the respect to call and tell us. She tried to tell my father once 'Oh I tried to reach you but couldn't find your number.' My father has had the same job for 30 years. His number hasn't changed in the last 40 years."
When her family went to claim her estate, they found Rosetta Skipper's bank accounts were mostly empty. There was her house, but the woman had changed the will to ensure it ended up in her hands upon Skipper's death. Having power of attorney allowed her to do that. She had also paid herself a weekly fee, claiming it was for the costs of being Skipper's caregiver. It started at $750 a week, and by the time of Skipper's death, it was over $2,500 a week. Skipper Jr. says that ended up being her undoing when the lawyers got involved.
If this case had occurred in Maryland, it almost certainly would have been referred for criminal investigation... D.C. is just not as aggressive on this issue.
"The minute we asked for her tax returns, they wanted to settle," he says.
Skipper Jr. believes the woman hadn't been reporting those payments to the IRS. The family got the house back, but could only sell it at half its value. The hundreds of thousands the woman spent on things such as improvements to her house, cars, high-end clothes, and Redskins and Nationals tickets -- all that money was gone.
"If this case had occurred in Maryland, it almost certainly would have been referred for criminal investigation," says Ron Landsman, one of the attorneys for the Skipper family. "That might have led to criminal sanctions. D.C. is just not as aggressive on this issue."
Implementing tougher laws to prevent abuse
According to Maryland Del. Ben Kramer, 70 percent of the wealth in this country is in the hands of the over-55 population. "That is a statistic that is not lost on the con artists and the scammers."
Kramer, a Democrat from Montgomery County, has sponsored several bills on elder abuse that have passed the General Assembly. One, which he says is the only such law in the country, allows prosecutors to charge someone for using "undue influence" to get anyone over age 68 to sign over their assets.
"For instance, a caregiver who is taking care of an elderly person, would start to tell them 'Look, if you want me to keep going to the grocery store, or if you want me to get your dry cleaning, you're going to have to sign over the title to your car to me,'" says Kramer.
Another bill deals with banks, and just went into effect last October.
"Banks in the state of Maryland are now required to report suspected financial abuse of senior citizens," says Kramer. "And they are now mandated to train all of their employees to look for this kind of financial abuse."
Sandy Spring Bank had been doing this on a voluntary basis since 2002. Frank Moran is the director of corporate security for the bank.
"Anything that is out of the ordinary are red flags that they should be looking for," says Moran. "Are they adding people to their account that aren't relatives? Are they seeing checks coming across that are signed by the client, but the actual body of the check -- make payable to and the amount --are in a different handwriting?"
The bank's branch staff was trained before the new law went into effect last October. With all Sandy Spring employees now taught to look for those red flags, suspected financial exploitation cases have skyrocketed. In the past six months, Sandy Spring banks have reported more cases than they had the prior 10 years.
John Sadowski, Sandy Spring's chief information officer, says a lot of those come through the bank's call center.
"If you Google your own name, you'd be surprised what's known about you online already," says Sadowski. "Bad guys can take pieces of information that's publicly available, and then call our call center and try to get additional pieces of information. I've sat in on the call center, and they'll be people struggling, saying 'My mom was married three times before and her maiden name was... umm,' trying to get the rep to fill in the blank for them."
But even with this new focus, financial exploitation is still difficult to spot, especially if it's a family member doing it. Sadowski admits there is little their bank or any bank can do to stop that.
The importance of the power of attorney
Stephen Skipper Jr. knows this all too well, and not just because of what happened to his great aunt. He's a branch manager of a credit union in New York City. In his family's case, he knows there was next to nothing banks could have done once the woman from the church got his great aunt to give her power of attorney. He does wish the banks had alerted them about the changes in spending once the woman started using the accounts.
"Checks written to replace windows in her house, payments on cars, payments on electricity bills, frivolous shopping at Nordstrom's and Saks Fifth Avenue," Skipper Jr. says. "Something that an 87-year-old woman wouldn't do."
And while he's able to speak openly about what happened, Skipper still gets emotional when he thinks of his great aunt and uncle, whom he visited often in D.C. when he worked for the United Nations.
"When my uncle first died, my father asked my Aunt Rosetta, 'do you want to come live with us?' And she said 'no, I'm okay. I want to stay in D.C.' When you're married over 50 years, and you have no children, it's just you and that person. And it seems like when this lady came in, she just took everything they worked on for 50 years."