By David Brand
A Jamaica man was charged with tricking his 101-year-old neighbor into handing over the deed to his house last week. A trio of Maspeth thieves pleaded guilty to posing as grandchildren and even recruiting kids in order to rob senior citizens’ homes in July. And in Flushing, a man allegedly begged an elderly victim to wire him $41,000 to post non-existent bail in the Dominican Republic.
Those are just three examples of elder abuse, fraud and predation that have made their way to Queens County Criminal Court in recent weeks. And they are reflective of a larger problem, says Julie Stoil Fernandez, the co-chair of the Elder Abuse Committee of the New York State Bar Association.
Fernandez told the Queens Daily Eagle that predatory behaviors and outright scams are getting worse and more common as the borough’s population ages.
She said predators often start out as well intentioned caregivers but begin to abuse their access to the senior.
“The predator starts as a do-gooder coming every day to check on neighbors and helping them with bills and then they see the money and say ‘My god, I should help this person,’” Fernandez said. “Good intentions can become entitlement and they can become very abusive and controlling.”
She said cases involving predators make up a “huge body of work” for her law firm Finkel & Fernandez, which specializes in elder law and elder abuse. The examples of abuse include the stealing of deeds, as allegedly occurred in Jamaica when a 58-year-old man tricked his 101-year-old neighbor into signing over the deed to his house.
Fernandez said she also encounters cases where young people establish phony relationships with older adults, steal their money and isolate the victims from their families.
“They’re going to the bank with them 100 times a day or they’re making them write big checks,” she said. “They get married and they start menacing and excluding other people in [the older adult’s] life.”
She said her firm is currently handling three cases related to “granny-napping,” in which caregivers manipulate the senior citizen and turn them against other loved ones or former caregivers.
Such cases often lead to heartbreak for honest and caring family members because the predator has “poisoned the mind” of the senior citizen, Fernandez said.
“They depend and rely on that new person and they distrust the person who was the care provider before and often that can’t be undone,” she said. “You can’t undo that emotion. You can get the predator and get [the older adult] back, but it doesn’t lead to an improved relationship.”
To stem rampant elder abuse, Finkel & Fernandez encourages older adults to draft nuanced advanced directives with elder law attorneys. Many older adults and their families tend to think that giving a loved one power of attorney forces a person to forfeit their rights and property, but elder law attorneys enable people to tailor the documents to meet their needs and establish protections.
“Power of attorney [gives] the person the liability to act in your best interest and, unless you grant gifting power, they can’t sell your property,” she said. “Most importantly, just by an agent signing it, they have fiduciary duties and a breach of that is serious. If you just say to a good friend, ‘I’d like you to do this or that with me, then they have no liability.’”
Fernandez said her New York State Bar Association committee works with other attorneys and bar associations across the city to educate them about how to identify and stop elder abuse.
“We try to teach other bar associations about the kind of abuses we’re aware of because so much could be avoided,” she said. “We alert people in law, real estate, the health field. We want lawyers to become more aware of elder abuse.”
If an attorney does suspect elder abuse, they can choose not to represent someone serving as an agent and refer a case for guardianship on the grounds that the older adult is being abused.
In addition to problems caused by manipulative pseudo-caregivers, three particular scams have flourished in Queens and elsewhere in the city, Fernandez said.
First, scammers posing as Internal Revenue Service employees call up, tell the senior there has been some kind of identity breach and demand a social security number to remedy the issue. Fernandez said neurological degeneration or side effects of medications make many seniors susceptible to the scheme.
“People are living longer and they are often on medication that helps them continue to function with impaired mental health,” she said.
The second big scam is the fake “sweepstakes” where callers claim that the victim has won a major cash prize but have to pay to claim the rest of the money. She said the scheme affects people across backgrounds and income levels, including several affluent people
For example, she said she worked with one family who had a relative lose four homes to foreclosure due to the scheme. Another retired attorney gave away hundreds of thousands of dollars in assets and now has only a few hundred dollars remaining, she added.
The third scam is a sign of the times throughout rapidly developing Queens.
Sophisticated property hunters target homeowners in gentrifying areas by visiting Surrogate Court to see who has died and who will inherit pieces of their estate. The crooked speculators then approach the individuals they deem financially or emotionally vulnerable and coax them into selling their interest in a property.
“These are skilled land purchasers,” she said. “They understand the neighborhoods, they mingle with churchgoers and they build trust.”
Indeed, the manipulation of trust is the key in many alleged crimes affecting Queens seniors.
In May, for example, Jamaica investment advisor Dean Mustaphalli was indicted for fleecing seniors out of $11 million. Mustaphalli, prosecutors say, cultivated their trust while working as an adviser at a local bank for several years before he began switching their money into his own failing hedge fund from 2014 to 2017.
“That is where the trouble allegedly began,” Underwood said at a Manhattan news conference. “They were nurses, shopkeepers, homemakers, municipal workers. They had asked Mr. Mustaphalli to invest their money on safe, secure investments. They liked Mr. Mustaphalli and they trusted him.”