(Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times)

New Ohio law targets elder fraud as cases on the rise: Here’s how it works

A new state law is aimed at reducing how often older Ohioans are defrauded and increasing financial penalties for those who exploit the elderly.

The bill, recently signed into law by Ohio Gov. John Kasich, increases financial penalties for theft from an elderly person, defined in state law as someone older than 65. It mandates someone convicted of defrauding an elderly person to pay full restitution, plus a fine of up to $50,000. The fine will go to county agencies tasked with investigating elder abuse.

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More than 3,630 cases of elder exploitation were reported across Ohio in fiscal year 2018, according to Ohio Department of Job and Family Services data. That includes 277 cases in Montgomery County, 191 in Butler County and 79 in Clark County.

The bill was sponsored by state Sen. Steve Wilson, R-Maineville, who is a retired CEO of LCNB National Bank.

“Day after day we saw our seniors being ripped off,” Wilson said of his years working at the bank. “It is really an epidemic of people going after our most frail and fragile citizens. They can convince them they won the lottery and they haven’t bought a ticket.”

The new law also adds certain financial workers to the list of people mandated to tell authorities if they have reasonable cause to believe an adult has been abused, neglected or exploited.

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And it requires the Ohio Attorney General to distribute at lease six public awareness publications every year informing the public of warning signs that exploitation might be occurring, how to report suspected elder fraud, and resources available to prevent or remedy elder fraud or financial exploitation.

Bank employees notice when a regular customer who comes in once a week to make a modest withdrawal suddenly takes out massive sums of money, Wilson said. Often the withdrawals follow suspicious information the senior received from a family member or friend.

The new law gives those financial workers requires them to notify authorities if they fear fraud is occurring. It also gives those workers information about resources for victims.

Nationwide seniors lose about $2.9 billion a year to fraud, Wilson said, with only 44 out of every 1,000 cases being reported to authorities.

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The law is designed to pay for itself, he said. The hope is that more cases will be reported, and the increased investigations will be paid for with the stiffer financial penalties.

“We’re not going to stop elder fraud, but we are absolutely going to put a dent in it with this bill,” Wilson said.

Many types of elderly fraud exist. One common scheme involves fraudsters calling seniors and pretending to be relatives in need of emergency financial assistance. Home repair scams also often target the elderly.

Earlier this year, an area man was charged with targeting seniors in a scheme that falsely claimed ownership of their homes with fake property deeds. He then tried to sell the properties to unsuspecting buyers, prosecutors allege.

Elder abuse, neglect and exploitation is on the rise across Ohio, according to a survey Ohio Job and Family Services Directors’ Association Executive Director Joel Potts cited in support of Wilson’s bill last year.

Potts said his agency surveyed JFS offices across the state and 84 percent of respondents reported an increase in elder abuse cases in the prior two years. More than half reported an increase in just the prior six months.

Dustin Holfinger, vice president of state government relations for the Ohio Bankers League, also spoke in support of the bill. He said the elderly are vulnerable to fraud because of factors such as isolation, cognitive decline, physical disability and health issues.

“Elder financial exploitation … has emerged as one of the most prevalent forms of fraud in our state,” he said. “Despite its growing prominence, however, only a small fraction of incidents are detected and reported.”

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