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Financial Abuse of Veterans

The Enemy We Trusted - Financial Abuse of Elderly Veterans

By Don Drake, Connelly Law Offices, Ltd.

Connelly Law Offices, Ltd.
Attorney RJ Connelly III

"In just a few days, our country will be observing Memorial Day," stated professional fiduciary and certified elder law Attorney RJ Connelly III. "Memorial Day commemorates the men and women who died while serving in our armed forces, particularly those who died in battle or as a result of wounds sustained in battle. To clarify, Memorial Day is to memorialize the veterans who made the ultimate sacrifice for this wonderful country. However, others have served that are being victimized at high numbers by those who choose to scam them."


"And in June, we observe Elder Abuse Awareness Month. In our country, as many as five million elder abuse cases are reported annually," Attorney Connelly continued. "Sadly, many of these abuse cases are against veterans or family members of those veterans who lost their lives. So, in observance of both events, I want to highlight the financial fraud experienced by those who served."

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Stories of Fraud and America's Heroes

John came home to New Jersey fresh from the battles of World War II. He was just barely 23 years old, yet he felt like he was seventy-five. Loud noises caused him unbelievable anxiety, and the silence seemed even louder. The sight of oil stains on the road elicited memories of blood-spattered truck beds where bodies and pieces were tossed for evacuation back to the base where soldiers, most still too young to have a beer, were tasked with trying to match limbs with torsos. During the day, he was too tired to find a job, and at night he was too awake to get rest. Every time he closed his eyes, he relived the battlefield.

In those days, it was called “battle fatigue” or “shell shock”. Today we know this as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Returning veterans did not talk about this for fear of being ridiculed. “Be a man”, they were told. For John, being a man meant pulling up a stool at Kosa’s Pub, where he treated himself with whatever liquor he could afford. Each glass somehow provided relief for the demons of war. But even in his steepest stupor, he was truly never at peace.

As John aged, he could not hold down any meaningful employment but did work from time to time at a local gas station doing menial tasks making enough money to keep him in alcohol. His veteran’s pension helped pay the rent for a rat-infested rooming house he shared with other vets down on their luck.

Then, John’s cousin suggested he move into his garage, which would be made into a living area. All John had to do was give him his pension check, and he would be provided with three meals a day and a place to live with all utilities included. John jumped at the chance.

As time passed, he realized the promises were lies, but no one believed him. He became known as the drunk in the shed. On a good day, John was lucky to receive a sandwich for lunch or a bowl of canned beef stew for dinner. He had very few clothes and lacked the most basic hygiene supplies.

Neighbors who saw John wearing flannel shirts in summer heat or shorts in sub-zero weather chalked it up to his alcoholism. He became the butt of jokes from the adults in the community, and the neighborhood children enjoyed teasing him whenever he went for a walk.

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USMC War Memorial

Meantime, the cousin who took John’s money and forced him into this lifestyle was viewed as a “saint” by the neighbors, who admired how he “took care” of the crazy guy. It ended on one chilly March night when John was found dead in his bed, succumbing to a cirrhotic liver. A proud American veteran who had given all he had for the country died in squalor in a shabby garage in northern New Jersey.

 

In New York State, an elderly Marine Corps veteran was held hostage in a motel room unfit for occupancy by any standards. The room, loaded with trash and human waste, was home to this 81-year-old American hero. In this case, police arrested Perry Coniglio, 43, and charged him with unlawful imprisonment, grand theft, and endangering an incompetent person.


When rescued, the veteran told the police he thought he was in the room for “only four days." Evidence indicated he had been there for more than four years. The criminal complaint stated that the veteran suffered from advanced dementia and was physically threatened and beaten with sticks regularly.

He was fed one bowl of cereal daily while Coniglio, the abuser, cashed and spent the veteran’s social security checks, pension checks, and food stamps. Even more disturbing, other motel residents were aware of this situation and occasionally brought him food but said nothing.

According to the local newspaper, one neighbor said she would see the veteran being yelled at and walking around naked outside. “He didn’t deserve to be treated like that, especially as a veteran,” Natasha Blanc told Hudson Valley News Network. “He deserved food and water and shelter — not abuse. I hope the old guy gets the kind of care that he deserves.” He was hospitalized and placed in the appropriate long-term care situation.

 

In Oregon, four elderly veteran plaintiffs residing in some of that state’s retirement communities owned by Holiday Retirement, Inc., and its affiliates sued Holiday (and its associated companies) in the Circuit Court of Oregon, Multnomah County, for the harm the plaintiffs allege they incurred when Holiday induced them to sign rental agreements under duress. The complaint alleged that Holiday persuaded them to sign rental documents, promising they would be eligible for a veterans' benefits program covering much of the rent.

Sadly, this did not happen. The complaint reports that the residents never received the aid promised, or if they did receive the help, it was at an inadequate rate to cover the rental costs. The complaint also detailed allegations that the rental company put significant pressure on the elderly victims, including pressuring them to sign complicated legal documents without time to review or understand them. The vets ended up becoming homeless.

 

In Sebring, Florida, a 23-year Marine veteran who served two tours in Vietnam and received seven battle stars and at least one bronze star was financially exploited by three people, including his grandson.

Arrested in this case and charged with theft were the veteran’s grandson, Joseph Ryan Binger, his girlfriend, Mariesa Louise Turner, and Rebekah Danielle Smith of Sebring.

The investigation leading to the charges began when the veteran’s children, who served as power of attorney, discovered numerous fraudulently written and cashed checks from his bank account. According to the affidavit, his children took steps to prevent continuing exploitation but could not stop it.

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Elderly veterans are targets

Further, the grandson allegedly checked his grandfather out of an assisted living facility twice and took him to the bank to make withdrawals. At least three of the veteran’s checks that were cashed included signatures that were not his handwriting.

 

Here in Rhode Island, a woman who volunteered for the local fire department for over thirty years and the wife of a veteran was murdered by a family member. Just one day before the horrific crime, her husband had filed a criminal complaint against Raymond Paiva, their grandson, who was suspected of stealing checks and jewelry to feed a drug addiction.

The next day, Paiva attempted to cash a $400 check at a local supermarket when suspicious employees called the veteran and told him what was happening. Upon arriving at his house, he found his 66-year-old wife with a pillow over her face and a white plastic garbage bag over her head with the drawstring pulled tight.

Her purse was on the floor open, and her car was missing from the driveway. Paiva and his girlfriend were eventually found in Providence, where they refused to follow police directions and were shot. Both survived and told the story of killing the woman and removing the jewelry from her lifeless body.

 

"Unfortunately, these stories occur on an all too regular basis to our older veterans who depend on unscrupulous caretakers for their daily existence," said Attorney RJ Connelly III. "But it is not just the elderly vets who are victimized. Today, many of our younger veterans are returning from the battlefield with serious physical disabilities or traumatic brain injuries, making them especially vulnerable to such exploitation. It is not an exaggeration to call this a national tragedy."


Why Veterans Are Targets

"Older veterans usually have higher incomes, but conversely, they have less savings than their non-military counterparts," said Attorney Connelly. "This is important because if they are the victim of a fraud, they are less likely to have a financial safety net in place and are therefore less likely to bounce back from such a situation, add to this their increased physical and mental health issues and the results can be tragic."

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Vietnam War in Washington D.C.

According to the National Council on Aging, veterans over fifty-five are more likely to have two or more chronic medical conditions than non-veterans of a similar age. This includes alcohol and drug addiction. These factors make our older veterans prime targets for financial exploitation.


"Another unfortunate truth is that family members are likely to be involved in financial fraud of older veterans because they have easy access to their finances in well over 25% of the cases," stated Attorney Connelly. "But it's not just family members; some investment planners and scam artists try to exploit veterans receiving government benefits. They sometimes contact veterans at nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and VA hospitals, telling them they will be eligible for larger veterans’ pensions and benefits by investing in trusts and annuities. The rule of thumb is that unless you have contacted an advisor or professional fiduciary about investing, never accept a cold call from someone asking questions about your financial situation or requesting information about your accounts."


Being Aware of Suspicious Activities

"When a case like this comes to our attention, the reporter of the abuse will often say they had no idea, but when we begin to go through the warning signs, they often say they wish they had this knowledge ahead of time," said Attorney Connelly. Here are some things to be aware of in cases of possible financial exploitation.

  1. The elder is confined to his or her home and dependent on others for care.

  2. Visitation by other family members and friends is often restricted by the caretaker, who wants to keep others from knowing what is occurring in the home.

  3. Sudden changes in a bank account or banking practice include an unexplained withdrawal of large sums of money by a person accompanying the elder or checks written out to services or retail establishments that would not interest a senior (such as memberships to a tanning parlor, nail salons, etc.).

  4. Additional names added to an elder’s bank signature card or the removal of a person from the signature care.

  5. Unauthorized withdrawal of the elder’s funds using the elder’s ATM card. This could also include frequently changing passwords on the accounts.

  6. Abrupt changes in a will or other financial documents, including beneficiary changes.

  7. Unexplained disappearance of funds or valuable possessions. This could include the cashing in of insurance policies or other investment accounts.

  8. Substandard care is provided, such as an empty refrigerator and pantry, prescriptions not being picked up at the pharmacy, missed doctor's appointments, or unpaid bills despite adequate financial resources.

  9. Discovery of an elder’s signature being forged for financial transactions or the titles of his/her possessions.

  10. The sudden appearance of previously uninvolved relatives claiming their rights to an elder’s affairs and possessions.

  11. The unexplained sudden transfer of assets to a family member or someone outside the family.

  12. An elder’s report of financial exploitation.

"If you or someone you love is elderly and vulnerable to the undue influence of others and could become the target of an unscrupulous person, an experienced elder law attorney can help to determine whether legal protections are needed like guardianship, conservatorship, or a power of attorney," said Attorney Connelly. "If financial exploitation is underway, call us at 401-724-9400, and our staff can discuss potential legal remedies like elder abuse lawsuits or other legal interventions. No one should ever be exposed to such exploitation, and in the case of our veterans, to take away from someone who has given so much is especially heinous."


Connelly Law Offices, Ltd.

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