By Lori Mars, JD, National Center on Elder Abuse
May 15, 2019
This past February, when the 20-year veteran cab driver Rick Spencer received the dispatch to pick up his next fare, he knew something was amiss. An hour earlier, while Mr. Spencer was waiting at a Quincy, Massachusetts cab stand for his next customer, a fellow taxi driver told him about his curious last ride. An older passenger, who had never used the car service before, told the driver that she needed to buy a housewarming gift for her grandson, and directed him to a remote Home Depot, though there was a closer store in her area. She purchased two gift cards, each worth $2000, and returned home. Shortly thereafter, a wary Mr. Spencer responded to a call from the same woman.
Two years earlier, Mr. Spencer encountered a similar situation when an older rider insisted on going to Walgreens to purchase gift cards as part of a Jamaican lottery scam. This time, when the 87-year-old entered his taxi, confused and anxious, he questioned where she was going and why. She told him that she had received two calls, one from the police and the other from someone who purported to be her grandson. The alleged officer informed her that her grandson had rear-ended a car, and demanded money or he would arrest the boy. The grandmother was instructed to call a cab, go to Walgreens, purchase gift cards in increments of $2000, and provide the caller with the pin numbers to secure her grandson’s safety – – nearly the same directive she had received and responded to earlier in the day.
After patiently explaining to his passenger that she was the victim of a scam, Mr. Spencer drove her to the police station to file a crime report. He then accompanied her to the bank to freeze her checking account, and afterwards to Home Depot to alert the store’s loss prevention team of the incident. For two-and-a-half hours, Mr. Spencer stood by her side as she wended her way through the daunting legal and financial mire, offering her kindness and support amid the distress. This unwitting hero prevented the older woman from falling prey twice in one day to the pervasive and insidious Grandparents’ Scam.
Financial exploitation affects approximately one in 18 cognitively sound older adults, though it is believed that the incidence of abuse is underreported. Collectively victims sustain nearly three billion dollars in losses annually. Widely recognized as a serious health concern, elder financial abuse can result in adverse medical and mental health consequences. With scams proliferating, older adults are the disproportionate targets of offenders intent on exploiting age-related susceptibilities. Social isolation, medical infirmities, and cognitive deficits can predispose elders to vulnerability and increase the risk of abuse.
Dedicated legislators, justice department personnel, consumer protection advocates, and coalitions are among the many working to prevent elder financial exploitation and redress harms. But, for right now, the imminent need is outpacing remediation efforts. Both cooperative and individuated interventions are critical to elevate and support older adults, increase public recognition of the myriad scams, and thwart exploitation by perpetrators.
As we approach World Elder Abuse Awareness Day (WEAAD) this coming June 15th, our shared goal is to lift up the voices of older adults and raise awareness of the many who experience late life abuse. To this end, we can learn from Mr. Spencer’s heroism. Tactfully, and with respect, he engaged his passenger in conversation, listened to her story, interceded to prevent further harm, and offered unstinting support. Through his responsiveness and benevolence, Mr. Spencer turned an ordinary fare into and an extraordinary act of goodwill. Like him, we can all seize the moment to elevate the voices and uphold the rights of older adults in our own communities.