KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - Each year, June 15 is recognized as World Elder Abuse Awareness Day. On this day, our nation joins the world in voicing our opposition to elder abuse, neglect, and financial exploitation.
As part of the Elder Abuse Prevention and Prosecution Act, which the president signed into law last October, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions appointed a career prosecutor as the Department’s Elder Justice Coordinator to support and coordinate the Department’s many elder justice efforts. Additionally, Attorney General Sessions directed the Department to appoint an Elder Justice Coordinator in every U.S. Attorney’s Office in the country to work on the elder justice issues most pressing in those communities while also collaborating with state and local partners in combating all forms of elder abuse and fraud. Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Kolman was designated as the Elder Justice Coordinator for the Eastern District of Tennessee.
According to statistics, each year, an estimated $3 billion are stolen or defrauded from millions of American seniors. Criminals prey on some of the most vulnerable Americans to steal their hard-earned savings and their peace of mind through “grandparent scams,” fake prizes or even threats. In a matter of minutes, criminals can take away the secure retirement for which many seniors have spent most of their lives working, saving, and sacrificing.
“Protecting our seniors is a top priority of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Tennessee. We will work with our local, state and federal law enforcement partners to prosecute vigorously anyone who chooses to victimize the elderly citizens of our district,” said U.S. Attorney J. Douglas Overbey.
Currently, there are many ways in which our elderly communities in our district are targeted in fraud schemes, committed by family, friends, neighbors and even strangers the elderly victims have never met. One of the most prevalent schemes involves a bogus Lottery Sweepstakes in which elderly victims, who are vulnerable and often isolated from friends and family, receive a phone call informing them that they have won a large sum of money in a lottery specific to senior citizens. They are told that being a senior citizen automatically enrolled them in the sweepstakes. The victims are bombarded with calls telling them to send money for taxes, processing costs, and other bogus charges, often resulting in the depletion of the entire savings of the victims over the course of time. The perpetrators of this fraud are difficult for law enforcement to identify as they often operate outside the country and use phones that cannot be tracked.
Another prevalent fraud scheme targets elderly individuals through the internet. Victims receive a pop up message that their computer has a virus that can be removed for a fee. There is, of course, no virus; however, the victims are often scared into believing there is an urgency to get the virus removed immediately. Depending on the vulnerability of the victim, perpetrators of the fraud will up charge for a continued service for future problems and bombard the victim with instructions to get the money to them in the mail immediately and by overnight services so the victim is less likely to stop payment.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Tennessee has had several successful prosecutions involving elderly victims. Additionally, there are several open cases involving pending litigation, as well as ongoing investigations that may lead to future charges.
In May 2018, Roger Dale Williams pleaded guilty to conducting a Ponzi scheme to defraud primarily elderly individuals, as well as obstructing and impeding the Internal Revenue Service. His sentencing is set for September 13, 2018.
In his plea agreement, on file with U.S. District Court, Williams admitted that he began offering bogus investment opportunities in 2001 as part of membership in an “investment club, “ which included opportunities for stock purchases, business start-ups, and bonds in solicitations that he mailed to victims. In order to perpetuate the scheme, he would also provide victims with false IRS forms pertaining to the purported investments. More recently, Williams extended his fraud scheme to members of the King Branch Road Church of Christ in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, where he had become a pastor. He solicited funds for the purchase of purported church bonds and claimed the funds would be used for the benefit of the church, particularly to pay off the church’s debt. However, Williams diverted the funds raised for purported church bonds to his own personal use and benefit, as well as used the funds to make lulling payments to investment club members. He convinced several victims to transfer their Individual Retirement Accounts into bogus investments under his control, then he siphoned off the funds for his own use and benefit. Due to Williams’ fraud, several elderly victims lost their entire retirement savings. Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Morris represented the United States in these court proceedings.
Also in May 2018, Cynthia Brooks Holt, was sentenced to serve 24 months in prison and ordered to pay $294,470.69 in restitution for aggravated identity theft involving an elderly neighbor.
According to her plea agreement on file with U.S. District Court, Holt and the 92-year-old victim were neighbors in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. After an arson at the victim’s home in November 2011, Holt took on the role of contractor in the rebuilding of the victim’s home. During this time, she had the victim write checks to her for construction costs incurred. However, after the completion of the construction, Holt continue to have the victim write checks to her. Between May 2012 and February 2017, she stole books of checks from two of the victim’s accounts, wrote checks to herself, and had the victim sign. She eventually began forging his signature on these checks resulting in hundreds of unauthorized checks written to herself from the victims account. The total amount of the fraud was $294,470.69. Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Kolman represented the United States in these court proceedings.
“Fraud targeting seniors is so common that no victim should feel ashamed to come forward and report it. It can happen to anyone,” said Attorney General Sessions in his recent remarks to the Elder Justice Coordinating Council.
Elder fraud complaints may be filed with the FTC at www.ftccomplaintassistant.gov or at 877-FTC-HELP. The Department of Justice provides a variety of resources relating to elder fraud victimization through its Office of Victims of Crime, which can be reached at www.ovc.gov.