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FCA Protects Long Island Seniors from Financial Exploitation

By Kelly Kass

When Manda Kristal is informed about questionable monetary transactions affecting her clients, she immediately takes action and investigates. As the Financial Abuse and Exploitation Program Coordinator at Family & Children’s Association (FCA), Manda is responsible for providing oversight and educating seniors about the risks of financial exploitation and abuse.

The service was launched in July 2017 through a grant from the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS), and is among six vital programs that comprise FCA’s Financial Assistance services.

FCA, based in Mineola, works closely with several community organizations to provide/receive referrals in an effort to protect Long Island’s vulnerable seniors. With millions of dollars lost in Nassau County as a result of senior exploitation, FCA strives to provide enhanced safety and money management skills to the area’s most fragile populations.

“Financial abuse can happen to anyone regardless of their socioeconomic background,” Manda says. “Often, scammers are family members or health care aides, people the victims trust the most.”

When making the devastating discoveries, many seniors are reluctant to come forward because they rely on the individuals for their everyday care. “They feel shame and experience a loss of dignity when they’re exploited,” Manda points out. “They don’t want to tell their children about the financial loss out of fear that their adult children will begin to doubt their ability to live alone, they worry about losing their independence or being placed in assisted living.”

With the help of a trained mental health counselor, Manda provides comfort and guidance, reassuring victims that they are not alone, and that support won’t be lost if they press charges against their caregivers. She also spends a considerable amount of time in the field, performing outreach at libraries, senior centers and religious institutions. “I explain how prevalent financial abuse is and that it’s important to talk about it. Coming forward prevents other seniors from becoming victims,” Manda says. FCA’s Senior Financial Program has reached thousands through outreach presentations, phone calls and workshops, while many Long Islanders have sought individual counseling for financial abuse and exploitation in the last year.

If Manda and her team come across someone they suspect is a victim of financial abuse, they may refer the case to the local police precinct, Nassau County Legal Services or the Nassau County District Attorney’s office. A recent case involved a senior citizen who was allegedly exploited by his relatives when he was hospitalized. Manda turned the case over to the Nassau County District Attorney’s office, who after months of investigation, were able to bring criminal charges. The monetary loss exceeded more than $100,000 and the alleged abusers are now awaiting trial.

Unauthorized use of a credit card is another scenario Manda has encountered. She frequently works with credit card companies to investigate suspicious charges. Recently, they were able to reverse a $5,000 charge allegedly made by a woman’s daughter without her elderly mother’s consent.

While retrieving lost funds isn’t always possible, linking seniors to cost-saving programs like SNAP and FCA’s Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP) helps to ease the financial strain in many cases.

Beware the Scam

Of the many cases that fill her desk, the most common forms of financial exploitation are phone scams from strangers. “Seniors are home alone, feeling socially isolated. If they suddenly get a call about winning the lottery or cashing a check in their name, the intellect leaves and the emotions come out,” Manda explains.

To prevent financial abuse and exploitation, she says it’s essential to identify red flags:

Avoid One-Time Offers 

“Any time you’re asked to do things quickly and quietly, always be suspicious,” she says. “If it’s a legitimate request, the company will be fine with you speaking to relatives, accountants or lawyers to get advice.”

Never Pay With Gift Cards

Tricking people into purchasing gift cards has become a common scam among the elderly. “A senior will get a call from someone saying they’re with the electric company and that the gas will be shut off unless the person buys a gift card and provides the code on the back of the card,” Manda explains. In one instance, a savvy and suspicious taxi driver alerted his passenger to a potential scam when she informed him about the gift card she was going to purchase as he drove her to Walgreens. The woman called her daughter who convinced her to forego the purchase. “No one on the level will ever ask you to pay with gift cards,” Manda points out.

Be Aware of Unusual Behavior

“If a healthcare aide, friend or relative accompanies an elderly patient to the bank and is pressuring the person to withdraw large sums of money, or a 90-year-old individual is suddenly making frequent ATM withdrawals or depositing a check for a large amount from out of the ordinary, these are red flags banks should look out for,” Manda says.

She recommends that seniors take the following precautions to help protect their finances:

1. Never give out your personal information (e.g. social security numbers) to someone you don’t know who contacts you.

2. Safeguard all financial information, such as passwords, pin numbers and credit card numbers.

3. Regularly review all of your financial statements, including credit reports and credit card bills.

4. Don’t answer phone calls from unknown numbers.

“Spoofing has become quite prevalent, where a caller can mimic the origin of the call,” Manda explains. This can include mirroring the first three digits of a phone number so the call appears local, or is coming from a particular business or agency. “It’s hard not to fall for that when you look at your caller ID,” Manda points out. “My advice: don’t be a courteous victim. It’s okay to hang up.”

If you’re unsure who the caller is, don’t pick up at all. “Nine times out of ten, these calls are not legitimate. If someone wants to get in touch, they will leave a message,” Manda says.

Anyone who suspects they or a loved one is a victim of financial abuse is encouraged to contact Manda immediately at 516-485-3425, ext. 2333, or via email at mkristal@fcali.org. All calls are confidential.

“Many seniors are overwhelmed by what we do. It’s rewarding and gratifying when things work out and justice is served,” Manda says. “We want seniors to know that they’re not the forgotten population. FCA is here to help and to keep them safe,” Manda says.

For more information on FCA’s Senior and Adult Services, visit www.fcali.org.