When we talk about frauds, we use a mix of different terms. At SAFE we often speak of “elder fraud,” a type of fraud defined by the age of the victim. We also talk about varieties of fraud, like romance scams or lottery scams - defined by the story or "pitch" the perpetrator relies on. And occasionally, we even talk about fraud statutes, like mail fraud, wire fraud, or securities fraud.
But no matter what words you use to describe it, all fraud boils down to a single act: lying for money.
This raises an uncomfortable question. Even when the perpetrators are brought to justice, do the victims get their money back? Unfortunately, not often. A 2018 Government Accountability Office report concluded that federal authorities collected as little as 1% of all restitution ordered between 2014 and 2016, an absolutely staggering statistic.
A couple of caveats: This statistic applies to all federal crimes, not just frauds, let alone the narrower category of elder fraud. Also, this statistic reflects restitution in cases in which a perpetrator was criminally charged, arrested, convicted, and sentenced – it doesn’t include the innumerable cases that don’t find their way to court. But it does help quantify the thing that most prosecutors, law enforcement, and defense attorneys know from experience: Our justice system is remarkably bad at delivering restitution to crime victims.
What does this mean for elder fraud? According to the Federal Trade Commission 2019-20 Protecting Older Consumers report, over $440 million have been lost annually in fraud for victims over 60. So each year, hundreds of millions of dollars are taken from older adults – and are never paid back.
But the results can vary depending on each case. For instance, if the perpetrator has a family or fiduciary relationship to the victim – e.g., children, estate attorney, or an asset manager – the stolen sums will be more accessible and potentially easier to recover. If your perpetrator belongs to a professional association – say, a lawyer or doctor – you may be able to approach the State Bar or Medical Board for help. But restitution becomes harder if the underlying transaction was harder to trace. For instance, if it was made in cash or digital currency, or if it involved a cross-border transaction.
Although it is a few years old, this Elder Financial Abuse Restitution Guide from the California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform provides some excellent practical advice on how victims can try to recover their money. Residents of other states may be able to apply some of CANHR’s insights to their own situation.