Lois McCubbin trusted the men standing at her front door offering to repair, for a reasonable price, drywall cracked by the shifting foundation of her North Richland Hills home.
But little did the 87-year-old widow know that while one man took her to a back bedroom for an inspection, the other searched her home, stealing a credit card and her husband’s wedding ring. Once they got out the door, the thieves ran up about $1,500 in charges and hocked the family heirloom for $185.
“It very much unnerved my mother,” said Diane Harris, one of McCubbin’s daughters. “She said, ‘They seemed like such nice men. They were clean.’ ... It broke my heart to tell her, ‘They were so, so nice and they were casing your house!’ ”
Tarrant County prosecutors say McCubbin is just one example of an “epidemic” in crimes being committed against the area’s rapidly growing elderly population by trusted caretakers, loving family members and fast-talking strangers at the door.
To take on this crime wave, the Tarrant County District Attorney’s office earlier this year established an elder financial fraud unit dedicated to prosecuting this unique white-collar crime. In just seven months, the team already has handled more than 120 cases, gotten 50 indictments and regained $260,000 in lost cash.
“We started in May with 35 cases under investigation and three indicted,” said Lori Varnell, the hard-charging former federal prosecutor who leads the unit with one other attorney and two investigators. “So you can imagine we are running. We are running in here. ... If you look at those numbers, it’s an epidemic.”
Four months after opening up the unit Varnell also was instrumental in creating the Financial Exploitation Prevention Center, a collaborative effort between the district attorney’s office and local and state agencies to provide services to aging and disabled crime victims.
As the Baby Boom generation ages, the pool of potential victims is only going to get bigger. In Texas, the 65 and older population has increased 35 percent to about 3.5 million since the 2010 Census, according to the Texas Demographic Center. In Tarrant County, that segment is up 31 percent to about 212,0000.
It is hard to say exactly how much is stolen every year from senior citizens, but the U.S. Justice Department estimates that about $3 billion is lost nationally, and Tim Morstad, assistant state director of for AARP Texas, suggests the total could be as high as $24 billion because so many of the crimes go unreported.
“The good news is that the problem is being identified and there is some attempt to improve this situation, but there is a lot of work to do,” he said.
Ron Turpin, who serves as a court-appointed guardian assigned to protect clients with diminished capacity, said having a specialized unit in Tarrant County is overdue.
Turpin said he had one case in which an 80-year-old woman with dementia didn’t know her caregiver had stolen $100,000 and bought herself a new home.
Turpin said he can’t entirely fault the DA’s office for not taking the case, acknowledging that the mental conditions of the victims make them difficult to prosecute. But it was a troubling to sit and watch it go on.
“It was frustrating because there were people stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Turpin said. “I’m surprised that so many people can get away with the things they do.”
A passion for the cause
Varnell’s passion for her new job comes from firsthand experience.
The 47-year-old prosecutor said she helped care for her father in the final years of his life. Her father was a former professional football player who had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. He had suffered multiple concussions playing for the Oilers and the Rams and lost control of his body, bit by bit.
Things got so bad Varnell built a house with her parents so she could be there to help. And while they had hired a caregiver, Varnell still came home one day and caught her dad just as he was about to give out sensitive personal information over the phone. She pulled the phone out of his hand.
“It is very difficult. It took me and my mom for those 15 years,” to care for her father, who had worked in football all of his life but also had a master’s degree in applied mathematics, Varnell said. He died in 2011. “I knew my dad would run her into the ground. She would be dead.”
With those memories burning bright, Varnell jumped at a chance to head the elder financial abuse unit being formed by Tarrant County District Attorney Sharen Wilson. Varnell had worked as a county prosecutor for 15 years — including a stint in the white collar crime division — before going to the U.S. Attorney’s office.
It didn’t take long for one wall of her ninth-floor office in the Tim Curry Criminal Justice Center to be lined with boxes of financial records of sad cases of financial abuse. There’s the case of the 81-old woman whose son stole her house and emptied her accounts, forcing her to move into a budget motel. In another box is the story of the 77-year-old veteran duped into marrying someone who swindled him out of $4 million.
Varnell breaks down the cases handled by the unit into three categories: victims taken advantage of by caregivers or family members; organized crime groups; and new friends who come knocking at the door.
In caretaker crimes, typically the suspect is a person who is not a relative and who is brought in to help with such things as taking medicines and making lunch. They start out with the authority to make medical decisions, but they convince their client to give them control over their finances, to put them on their insurance policies, and to write others out of the will, Varnell said. Sign this piece of paper and you can have your grilled cheese.
“They will usually manipulate the person they are caring for and do a smokescreen for everybody else,” she said. It takes a missed tax payment or a bounced check to tell the family something is wrong. “It is something that will wake up a family and they will start looking into what’s going on with Pops.”
If it’s a family member, it’s typically a child with a drug or gambling problem who drains the parent’s accounts before either they or the other siblings know it has happened.
Sweetheart swindles are a favorite of organized crime groups like “the Rom,” or self-proclaimed gypsies. In these cases, someone who is typically younger marries someone much older and convinces them to open up their financial portfolio, put them in their wills and on their insurance policies. Often, these pros scam more than one person at a time. One woman Varnell is investigating has at least seven victims.
“These people are sociopaths. I would say that 100 percent of them would be in the position of ‘I’m happy if I put you in the poorhouse or the grave and I don’t care which as long as I can profit from it,’ ” she said.
Then there are the “new friend” cases like McCubbin’s, where someone poses as a fake repairman at the front door. They also will find a way to steal someone’s identity, pocket their credit card, or write a forged check. These run-of-the-mill scams, while often for less money, can still shake the elderly to their core.
“People who take advantage of seniors, that is the lowest of the low,” Harris said.
‘It shakes your whole world’
Varnell and Ty Stimpson, the other prosecutor working in her unit, do a lot of hand holding.
Their victims, like in many criminal cases, already are scared and confused. But adding to the complexity of the situation is the difficulty of dealing with someone whose mental capacity is strained or dwindling. And on top of that, some of them simply don’t want to believe that they’ve been duped. As a result, the two prosecutors spend more face-to-face time with those they are working so hard to protect.
“I have to hold their hand through this because it is scary. It is new. They don’t understand it and they just got scammed and their life savings is gone and they don’t know what they are going to do tomorrow ...,” Varnell said. “When you get it wrong, it shakes your whole world.”
It was only a few months into the start of the new unit that Varnell realized that the people she was fighting for needed help above and beyond what her office could provide. Luckily, she got a cold call from Guardianship Services Inc., an area nonprofit that has been helping senior citizens since 1985 with such things as court-ordered guardianship and money management services.
The DA’s office and GSI, along the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services and 10 other local and state groups, ultimately decided to create the Financial Exploitation Prevention Center to provide aging or disabled adults with services and programs to prevent against abuse.
“By 2020, a third of our population will have Alzheimer’s or dementia, so that means that one third of us will be incapacitated and two thirds of us will be having to care for the one third,” Varnell said. “It takes a village to care for someone who doesn’t have all their faculties.”
The center already has taken on 11 cases. In one of those cases, an elderly woman had been kicked out of her house by her son and was living in a budget motel. Her Social Security checks weren’t big enough to pay the rent and buy food, so the agency brought in Meals on Wheels and a dedicated case manager is working with her to find suitable housing.
“We heard through the grapevine that the DA’s office was doing this and made a cold call. We got together and we’ve been off and running ever since,” said Lyn Scott, executive director of GSI.
For her part, Harris couldn’t be happier with the help her family received from the district attorney’s office. Although her mother was victimized in 2015 before the unit was formed, it was Stimpson and a North Richland Hills detective who successfully brought the case to a close this summer.
Before the case went to court, Stimpson worked closely with McCubbin, who is now 90 and living in an assisted living center. He came to her house to interview her, instead of making her come downtown. He also gently took her through a 45-minute video-taped deposition.
All of the evidence Stimpson gathered eventually was used to convince Brian Norton, 42, to plead guilty to credit card abuse in June. He is serving a 10-year prison sentence.
But Stimpson’s help didn’t end there. He and the North Richland Hills police also helped the family track down the wedding ring, which her mother had turned into a necklace, at an Arlington pawn shop. The store returned it to them, free of charge.
“It was the perfect ending to a bad situation,” Harris said. “We got the ring back and she wears it around her neck. Every time I see it, I smile.”
Questions to ask if you think you need help?
- Someone is accessing my accounts without my permission.
- Cash or money from my accounts seems to be disappearing.
- I don’t understand the financial decisions someone else is making for me.
- I don’t feel confident making financial decisions alone.
- My children or others are pressuring me about money.
- People are calling or mailing me asking for money.
- My bills are confusing to me.
If the answer is yes, call the Financial Exploitation Prevention Center of Tarrant County at 817-720-6556.