Cobb Elder Abuse Task Force warns of financial scams

July 9, 2019, 2019 - Marietta - Cobb prosecutor Jason Marbutt delivers his opening statement. The trial of Landon Terrel, facing charges of aggravated battery and felony murder, started July 7th. This is the criminal trial of a former worker at a Sunrise assisted living facility accused of beating to death a 91-year-old resident of the home, Adam Bennett. Bennett’s daughter, Christine Houk testified that despite his age and memory issues, his mind was sharp. She lived near the Sunrise facility and visited him frequently. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

July 9, 2019, 2019 - Marietta - Cobb prosecutor Jason Marbutt delivers his opening statement. The trial of Landon Terrel, facing charges of aggravated battery and felony murder, started July 7th. This is the criminal trial of a former worker at a Sunrise assisted living facility accused of beating to death a 91-year-old resident of the home, Adam Bennett. Bennett’s daughter, Christine Houk testified that despite his age and memory issues, his mind was sharp. She lived near the Sunrise facility and visited him frequently. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

Kim Swanson never planned to speak publicly about the time she almost lost $1,000 to a stranger who called to tell her she missed jury duty.

Swanson, the assistant to Cobb County Commissioner Bob Ott, recently received the call from a person who said she missed three jury summons and there were three warrants out for her arrest. Swanson panicked and did the wrong thing: she followed the scammers’ commands.

“Jail isn’t really a happy place to be,” she said while explaining how she nearly became a fraud victim.

Swanson’s story was one of many cautionary tales recounted Tuesday during a seminar at Johnson Ferry Baptist Church in Marietta which discussed ways seniors can fall victim to financial exploitation.

Joe Gavalis, a law enforcement coordinator with the North Georgia Elder Abuse Task Force, said a little more than half of those who financially exploit older residents are their relatives, caretakers or “someone you trust.” The rest, he said, are carried out by professionals who target seniors because that generation “has been very trusting.”

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Jason Marbutt, Cobb County’s senior assistant district attorney and head of the Cobb task force, said only one in 24 fraud cases are reported to police because the victims are ashamed and embarrassed they fell for the ruse. But reporting the crime is the first step to catching the criminal, he said.

“We can only prosecute and punish what we can catch,” Marbutt said.

In 2018, the Cobb County District Attorney’s Office charged 29 defendants with at least one count of neglect, abuse or exploitation of the elderly. The number rose slightly to 35 in 2018. There have been five defendants charged so far this year.

Cobb County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Glenn Daniel said his agency investigated 290 reports of elder exploitation cases in 2018. That figure increased to 320 in 2019. So far this year, the department has investigated 60 reports. Daniel said those numbers include scams targeting the elderly.

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Schemes used on older adults include the imposter scam, home repair/improvement scams and the jury duty scam.

The imposter scam, where the scammer poses as a person or business to try to get the potential victim to pay off a debt, relies on the “idea of urgency” that instills fear into the potential victim, Marbutt said.

Marbutt said his own wife, Olivia, fell victim to an imposter scam. He described his wife as a “very intelligent patent attorney” who received an email from someone claiming to be a partner at her law firm. The email asked Marbutt’s wife to go to Target and purchase iTunes cards to help with a payment. The lawyer spent $500 to $1,000 performing the task. Twenty minutes went by before she reached out to her husband, who informed her she was scammed.

“All the money was gone and there was nothing we could have done,” Jason Marbutt said.

Home improvement scams are also common crimes targeting older adults. James Duncan, an investigator with the Cobb County Sheriff’s Office, said residents have to do their due diligence and ask these potential scammers to provide at least three references. In a lot of cases, older adults may live alone, so the “nosy neighbor” can help thwart scammers by simply asking questions and reporting their suspicions to police.

“The nosy neighbor is probably the best deterrent to help us solve crimes,” he said.

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The jury duty scam happens when a person receives a phone call informing them a warrant has been issued for their arrest. The person is told they have to pay a fine or they will go to jail.

Swanson, Ott’s assistant, said the scam was convincing enough that she got in her car and began driving to the Cobb sheriff’s office to pay off the fine. However, the scammer told her to stop by the bank to withdraw about $1,000 to apply towards the payment. The scammer then told her to go to Kroger and purchase several Green Dot cards. She was directed to call a bail bondsman and read him the number on the back of the Green Dot cards to pay the fine. At this point, Swanson said she began to feel uneasy about the situation. She told the men on the phone that they could meet her outside the Sheriff’s Office to get her payment.

Swanson said when she insisted on making the payment in person, the scammers ended the call. She called a friend who is an attorney who told her she was scammed.

“You get all caught up in to it,” she said. “The more I talk about it the dumber I feel. You have to take a minute and breathe.”

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