First responders and several county officials gathered in Houston County Probate Judge Patrick Davenport’s courtroom Thursday to commemorate Elder Abuse Awareness Month.
The event’s timing proves to be critical as cases of elder abuse – especially financial exploitation incidents – have risen in recent years.
“One of the big rises in the last couple of years … is financial exploitation,” said Summers Bell, Houston County Department of Human Resources adult service supervisor. “Scams are a huge portion of the reports we get -- elderly people getting taken advantage of in online scams, phone scams, sweepstakes scams, sweethearts scams. People are losing all of their retirement money, and they’re taking out second mortgages.”
Bell said her department investigates between 45 to 60 new allegations of abuse each month in Houston County alone, although some of those cases involve younger people who have mental or physical disabilities. She said two factors have fueled the increase in financial exploitation investigations -- a recent change to state law and the proliferation of internet and social media usage.
According to Cpl. Shane Ash of the Dothan Police Department, the state created a law that specifically covers financial exploitation of the elderly – defined as anyone age 60 or older – in 2014. Prior to that, cases involving incidents that targeted the elderly were classified as theft cases.
Ash said financial exploitation cases began increasing in 2016, and most scams originate overseas in countries like China, India, Nigeria, and Ukraine. In those cases, DPD’s goal is to prevent the continuation of the theft incidents and to educate victims and their loved ones about scams, he added.
“Once we see it’s overseas, I don’t know anywhere we could prosecute because of issues with extradition,” Ash said. “You get into a dollar value of what it would even cost to extradite and how much money is lost. For us, it’s getting the information out there, teaching the elderly.”
Ash said Elder Abuse Awareness Month has served as an opportunity to do just that, noting he has taught two classes this week alone. Businesses and church and civic groups can contact the Dothan Police Department to request a class regarding scams and other forms of financial exploitation.
Elder Abuse Awareness Month also provides a platform to educate the public about how to report suspected abuse – whether that is physical or financial, Bell said, adding that people should call local law enforcement agencies in emergency situations, but other cases should be reported to their county DHR offices.