Alabama is a hotbed for retirees, and financial predators know it
Montgomery Advertiser (AL)
June 01-- Jun. 1--Note to readers: June is Elder Abuse Awareness Month. The following story is one of millions that take place across the country.
Lois Woodard was 15 when she met the love of her life. Fresh out of Air Force basic training, Willie Woodard was three years her senior when he saw her walking down the street. The two tied the knot a year later and spent the next 38 together.
The Woodards had a child, traveled the world courtesy of the Air Force and eventually built their home in east Montgomery. As construction was progressing, they'd wait until the contractors left and take their lawn chairs to sit within the frame of the house, marveling at what they'd been able to achieve after decades of working.
All of that would eventually be taken from Lois.
The house was finished in 1997 and the couple spent five years in their new home together before Willie Woodard died from mesothelioma. Before that, the retired master sergeant asked Richard Sanks, a friend and fellow serviceman at Maxwell Air Force Base, to look out for Lois and handle her finances. She'd never even filed taxes.
"When they told me (Willie) had lung cancer, I said 'that's OK, you can just take one lung out of me, and we can live on the other one'," Lois Woodard said about her husband's diagnosis. She didn't quite understand the severity, but over time, his lungs blackened, and Sanks was by the couple's side in the hospital all of the time.
"He trusted him," she said of her husband's relationship with Sanks.
Now at age 72, Lois Woodard is waiting for Sanks to pay back more than $200,000 and sign the deed of her house back to her. Originally charged with a felony charge specific to elder abuse, Sanks pleaded guilty to theft in the first degree in October 2018. Approved to participate in the county's pretrial diversion program, he has three years to pay back his restitution to avoid jail time.
After Willie's death, Sanks had taken over making sure the bills were paid and the house maintenance kept up. He also helped redo the cabinets and repainted the house.
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"I didn't know how to do these things when I first got married, and my husband did everything for me," Lois said. "Before Willie died, he told me, 'Lois, if you need anything and you can't handle something, call Richard,' and I did."
But then, Sanks started asking to borrow money. And late notices on the mortgage started arriving. The cable was cut off. The lights, too.
"I trusted this man," she said. "He robbed me of everything I had but he didn't take my soul."
Approximately 1 in 10 Americans age 60 and older have experienced some form of elder abuse. Some estimates range as high as 5 million older Americans who are abused each year, according to the National Council on Aging.
One study estimated that only 1 in 14 cases of abuse are reported to authorities.
The rate of financial exploitation of the older people is more prevalent in Alabama than other states because of the low cost of living, said Amanda Senn, the deputy director of the Alabama Securities Commission.
"Alabama is one of top the places to retire because it is so inexpensive, so we do have a lot of seniors that come here," Senn said, who has been prosecuting elder exploitation cases that involve investment fraud for 10 years.
In Alabama, $1 million in retirement will last nearly 25 years, according GoBankingRates.com, compared to places like Hawaii (fewer than 12 years) and California (fewer than 16).
"We have a ripe pool for financial exploitation and seniors are targeted," because of vulnerabilities, trustworthiness and cognitive issues, Senn said.
Focused on investment fraud, roughly 30 percent of the cases opened by the Alabama Securities Commission in FY 2017-18 involved at least one senior.
"Your financial reasoning is in the part of the brain that is first to deteriorate," she said.
The cases she sees often involve people giving investment advice to the elderly that are not in good faith, telling them to invest in one thing over another in order to get control of their money.
"They know they can prey on these individuals. When these victims get to a certain point in their life, they start getting worried about money and whether they will have enough for the rest of their life," she said.
Because of this, Senn said, "We have an incredibly aggressive stance in Alabama. ... and we have harsh criminal penalties for those who commit crimes against the elderly."
In 2013, the Legislature passed the Protecting Alabama's Elders Act, which strengthened the penalty for crimes against the elderly.
In 2016, Alabama became one of the first states to pass legislation based on the North American Securities Administrators Association's Model Act to Protect Vulnerable Adults From Financial Exploitation, followed by another 21 states. The act requires members of the financial industry to report instances where they believe financial exploitation has occurred or was attempted.
About 60 cases a year come through Senn's office that are reported by people in the field.
"I think people who steal are evil people," Senn said "Who would steal from a senior citizen that has worked their entire lives and saved for their retirement and some who aren't able to go back into the workforce? They might think they (the elderly) might not have the mental capacities to recognize they are getting ripped off but that still doesn't excuse their behavior."
Senn's office partners with the District Attorney's Office, as well as with others in the community to form the Elder's Justice Task Force, which meets monthly.
For Deputy District Attorney Madelyn Mauldin, who prosecuted the case against Sanks and is the primary DA who works elder abuse cases, more cases of financial exploitation come across her desk versus physical abuse or neglect.
"These cases are hard, and they are very sad," Mauldin said, explaining that there's more than just the normal circumstances of a theft to consider because of the family or relationship dynamics often involved.
"Sometimes we'll have family members, say a niece or nephew, who has a drug problem. We know they're not a bad person, but they are doing this to fund their addiction," she said. For reasons like this, people hesitate to file charges, along with the fear that losing their caregiver will place them in a nursing home.
The District Attorney's Office, she said, is taking elder abuse very seriously.
"We're trying to do things out in the community. ... We're partnering with other organizations to bring awareness and let people know that you have someone to talk to you, you have someone to report this to, and we will do the very best for you that we can."
Her biggest hope is that people will begin to understand that Alabama law protects people who make reports in good faith.
"If you think something is off, you will not be held liable if it turned out you're wrong," Mauldin said. "If you see something, say something, because these are underreported and we need to protect people who can no longer protect themselves."
When asked if Sanks took advantage of Woodard, Mauldin said, "He absolutely did. Not only was he aware of her medical history, if you're around someone that often you know when the dementia is coming on. They change. They forget things. If you're around someone you notice those changes."
"I don't want to discourage honest people from helping people out, but if you're going to do something for somebody and it's not your money, you need to make sure you are doing everything correctly. You keep the receipts. You don't write checks to yourself. You don't go buy things on your own dime then reimburse yourself," she said.
While the initial charge filed against Sanks was financial exploitation in the first-degree -- a class B felony punishable by 2 to 20 years in prison and up to a $30,000 fine -- "The main goal relayed to me is that he make restitution payments," Mauldin said.
The pretrial diversion program is "the best way to do that and keep him in line," she said, adding that, "If they are in jail they won't be making restitution payments."
Among what Sanks will pay back includes $4,700 in cash advances from Woodard's credit cards, a $60,000 loan Woodard gave to Sanks in 2007 and $75,000 withdrawn from her certificate of deposit account in 2008. Additionally, he has to sign back over the deed for her house to her, appraised at a near $220,000.
Sanks was able to receive the cash advances, withdraws and the deed to the house without Lois knowing because an employee at the bank notarized Lois' signature while she was not present.
Mauldin said the District Attorney's Office does not, at this time, plan to pursue charges against the employee because it hasn't been determined if the employee was acting maliciously, "but it's always a possibility."
In total, Sanks will pay $214,450 in restitution, though the payments have not started.
To Lois though, it is about more than money.
"When God said it was time for (Willie) to come, I resented that. I wouldn't go to church. I had to get over it and I tried and I did and I was doing well," she said. "Then all of this other stuff started happening to me and I didn't know what to do."
As she started to figure it all out, in and out of hospital stays that included a three-day coma, she said she felt embarrassed.
"I know what I did was wrong," she said, blaming herself for not noticing sooner.
"Now I just stay here. I don't want to do anything and I don't like that. I want to live," she said, but, "I am so tired."
Although the blame and shame has not gone away, she said she wanted to tell her story because, "I want to make sure anyone else getting abused, maybe this will open their eyes. I don't know. I had no idea."
(c)2019 the Montgomery Advertiser (Montgomery, Ala.)
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