Sonoma County had 6,000 reported elder abuse cases last year, feds say that crime is on the rise

Elder abuse is on the rise, according to the Centers for Disease Control.  It can be physical, emotional, or financial, and often devastates an older person's life. 

Experts say there are warning signs: isolation, decline in personality or behavior, money problems. 
While most monetary fraud is committed by someone the senior knows and trusts, phone scams continue to raid bank accounts. 

"I fell for it, I just totally fell for it," said victim Ezra Gardner Rust, at his Rohnert Park home. "He was really cold, totally ruthless, and willing to take every cent I had." 

In April, Rust lost $32,000 to a caller who claimed to be from the Social Security Administration. 

He convinced Rust to go to several banks and withdraw cash, then purchase more than 200 gift cards over a 16-hour period. 

"I would photograph the codes on the cards, and then text message them to him," explained Rust, a retired music professor at Sonoma State University.  

The scammer kept Rust on the phone, using an earpiece, instructing him every step of the way,  intimidating and cajoling him throughout.  

The caller claimed there was a warrant for Rust's arrest because his Social Security number was linked to various crimes in Southern California. 

He could go to trial and most likely prison, warned the man, or he could handle it "privately."

"He said I was linked to a blood-stained stolen car and linked to cocaine trafficking, plus other things, " Rust told KTVU, "and I knew it wasn't true, but he said judges and police were watching and listening, and I fell for it."

Those who work in elder services say Rust's story is all too common. 

"Who's getting the brace calls right now, does anyone need a new brace?" asked Donata Mikulik, leading a workshop at the Healdsburg Senior Center Monday evening. 

A few dozen retirees listened as Mikulik described the new Medicare scam, in which callers try to extract financial information from unsuspecting seniors by promising them medical devices.  

Mikulik is the Elder Justice Coordinator for Sonoma County, which had more than 6,000 reported elder abuse cases in 2018, an uptick from the year before. 

Seniors are an ever-growing population, many have assets, and they are often more trusting and less tech-savvy than younger people.  

"The perpetrators edge their way into a senior's life," Mikulik told KTVU, "and there may be loneliness, maybe they're not talking to friends and family as much as they used to, but that scammer or caregiver will give them attention every single day."

June is Elder Abuse Awareness month, and in Sonoma County, small purple flags are flying at senior centers, one for each report made during 2018. 

Too often, experts say, observers may sense something is wrong, but are reluctant to get involved, or be nosy about someone else's affairs. 

"You need to keep an eye out for seniors," said Anna Grant, of Healdsburg Senior Services. "When neighbors know who you are and what you normally do, they'll notice when a change occurs, and are able to say something." 

Participants in the Healdsburg session swapped stories of various phone calls they've received: the IRS scam, the lottery scam, the grandparent scam. 

"I've had three of the calls on my grandson, he's either in an accident or he's in jail," Dorothy Rice told KTVU, admitted she was fooled at first when the caller used the name of her 33-year-old grandson.

Later, she realized she'd said the name aloud, and he simply repeated it back, in a gambit to steal thousands of dollars from her. 

"By the third call, I said, 'Grandma doesn't care, and you have more money than Grandma, so I'm not sending you any.' " 

Rust is sharing his story in hopes of warning others. 

"I know as I've gotten older, I'm more likely to be confused sometimes," acknowledged the 83 -year-old educator.  
He is grateful to the bank manager at his final stop who confronted him, demanding he remove his earbuds and hang up the phone. 

Rust's money is gone, untraceable, and as police took a report in the bank, the scammer called him a dozen more times.  

"He was so skilled, so subtly coercive," recalled Rust, of the entire ordeal, "because he dangled fear and confusion on the one hand with his promise that he was really on my side."

Most counties have Adult Protective Services and an ombudsman available for reporting suspected elder abuse. 

In Sonoma County, the numbers to call are (707) 565-5940 and (707) 526-4108.