Rockland County District Attorney Thomas Zugibe spoke Tuesday at the Rockland Independent Living Center about possible dangers coming from criminals who target the elderly and those with disabilities.
Zugibe said his office is changing and instead of reacting to crime, they’re trying to be more proactive.
“A significant part of our efforts today are in crime prevention, not waiting for crime to happen but trying to stop it in the first place,” he said.
He said that as his office changes, so do criminals, who are more sophisticated now.
“They’re now sitting in their living rooms with their computers,” he said. “They’re making more money and it’s far more lucrative.”
One way criminals are attacking from their own homes is wire fraud. He said a case come into the office recently from someone who put tires up online for sale. Within an hour, the tires were purchased for $300. A few days later, the seller got a check in the mail for $1,800, and a few hours later, an email apologizing for sending so much over. The email told the seller to take an extra $100 and then write back the other $1,400 once the funds are available.
The “once the funds are available” line is key in the wire scam, Zugibe said, adding that the funds being available doesn’t mean the check has cleared.
“Under the law, if it’s a government check or it’s a bank check, the bank under law has the make the funds available within a day,” he said. “If it’s a private check, two days. It it’s an out-of-state check, five days. You know how long it takes to actually collect? Up to 10 days, okay, maybe longer before they know.”
Zugibe said that in wire scams, the people wire the money out and then a few days later the check comes back as a forgery. He added criminals are also incredibly realistic fake checks, some of which even have watermarks.
Another wire scheme a lot of people are falling for, Zugibe said, is they get checks in the mail and told they’re going to be a secret shopper or try out a nearby Western Union. The person is told what their fee is and to wire the rest back. Zugibe said that while a lot of people wouldn’t wire money back, people are doing it every day.
Another scam people are falling for comes over the phone when people get calls from people saying they’re with police agencies and asking for money. Zugibe said people might feel obligated to donate money to a police agency, but to ask for more information before sending money anywhere. He said asking for a pamphlet is usually a good way to see if someone soliciting money is for real.
“If you don’t have time to check out references, to go through consumer protection and everything else, you have to say no,” he said. “You have to say no immediately, and that’s true of any type of solicitation. If you’re being pressured, the answer’s got to be no.”
While he talked about a few ways people are scammed online, Zugibe also spoke about how much the internet has helped his office and other police agencies.
“We have a special desk set up just for monitoring social networks,” he said. “You can’t believe the information that’s put out there. Criminals are proud of what they do and they post it up there.”
He cited a recent case on gun possession, and said they were trying to figure out if someone had a certain gun. They pulled up the person’s Facebook page to see him in his profile picture holding the gun.
“Facebook is now an essential part of law enforcement,” Zugibe said. “We have to monitor it very day.”
He said they have to stay up on many areas of the internet, even online gaming, where he said people are contacting each other to sell drugs.
But dangers for the elderly aren’t just online or over the phone. Zugibe also talked about cases where caregivers have stolen from the people they’re looking after.
“If you’re going to hire a caregiver, go through an agency and not out of the paper. You have to check out the credentials on them, you have to check out the references for these people and find out what their history may be,” he said. “The family has to be encouraged to stay involved, inventorying all of the property before they turn it over to an aide, staying in touch, letting the aide know that the family is involved and is aware of what’s going on.”
He said a recent case in the county saw an aide steal more than $10,000 in jewelry from the person they were taking care of. When questioned, the aide denied taking the jewelry and blamed the disappearance on the mental state of her elderly patient. The district attorney’s office pulled video from local pawn shops and saw the woman selling the jewelry, leading to the caregiver admitting to stealing.
But outside caregivers aren’t the only ones stealing from older residents. Even relatives take advantage of people they’re watching over.
“Usually where it starts to go wrong is where the family member who’s stepping up has their own personal or financial problems. Suddenly their house is in foreclosure because of the bad housing market, they’ve had some setbacks and they see this big pile of money they’re controlling for mom,” Zugibe said. “What we’ve heard is ‘mom had a lot more money than she needed anyway,’ ‘it was going to be mine one day anyway,’ ‘I was just borrowing it and was going to put it back when I got back on my feet again’ and suddenly the estate is gone. The money that mom or dad saved for is gone.”
He said a big way people do this is through joint bank accounts, which gives them legal access to the money.
“What’s unfortunate about it is the law addressed it a long time ago and created what they call a convenience account just for this situation, and the banks, for some reason, never tell them about it when they come to set it up,” Zugibe said. “So instead of setting up that same account as a joint account, you set it up as a convenience account under the banking law. Guess what it becomes? That person only acts as the fiduciary in a convenience account. They can write all the checks in the world as long as it’s for the benefit of mom.”
He added that if the older relative dies, the money in the convenience account goes back into the estate and is distributed as called for in the will.