Elder Fraud: Too Close To Home

Ten years ago my grandmother was a victim of elder fraud. In what I now know was a classic scam, a scammer contacted her by phone, claiming to be a grandchild in trouble. (It’s also common for the scammer to pose as someone representing a grandchild in trouble, such as a lawyer or law enforcement agent.) In my grandmother’s case the scammer said he was in jail and needed bail money to get out, convinced her to buy cash cards at a grocery store on his behalf, and intimidated her into staying silent.

At first glance it appears that there were a number of people who could have raised the red flag. My grandmother could have recognized that the voice on the phone was not familiar, the grocery store clerk could have noticed her odd behavior, or our family could have checked in more frequently, as the scam took days to complete. But on closer inspection none of these avenues were likely to stop the scam. Like many elderly people, my grandmother does not hear particularly well, and does not always recognize familiar voices on the phone. Employees at a grocery store are generally not empowered to intervene if they notice suspicious but legal purchases. And at the time of the scam my grandmother lived alone, making the frequent family contact needed for prevention difficult.

While we have since taken steps to prevent such fraud going forward, they were not quick or easy. My grandmother’s finances are now closely monitored by a family member, and she has moved closer to family, making frequent check-ins possible. While these were needed changes, perhaps most important is that the whole family is now aware of these dangers and will be ready to take action if anyone notices something amiss.

My grandmother’s experience is distressingly common. In 2022, adults over the age 60 reported 88,262 complaints to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center, with a total loss of $3.1 billion. This represents an 84% increase in losses as compared to losses reported in 2021. The average loss per victim was more than $35,000, and more than 5,000 victims lost over $100,000. California has the highest number of elderly victims of fraud, and the collective amount of reported losses incurred in California was $624,509,520 in 2022.[1]

The Department of Justice’s Office for Victims of Crime list the following common scams[2]:

  • Grandparent scams such as the one described above.
  • Romance scams where the scammer takes advantage of people looking for romantic partners or companionship through dating websites or social media.
  • Government investigation scams where the scammer claims to be a government employee and threatens to arrest or prosecute victims unless they agree to provide funds or other payments.
  • Sweepstakes/lottery/charity scams where the scammer claims to work for a charitable organization and tells the victims they won a lottery or sweepstakes, which they can collect after paying “fees/taxes”.
  • Tech support scams where the scammer acts as a technology support representative and offers to fix non-existent computer issues. The scammer gains remote access to a victim’s computer or phone and their personal information.
  • Phishing scams where the scammer uses emails and websites that claim to be associated with financial companies and manipulates victims to disclose personal and financial data. 
  • Email extortion scams where the scammer shows evidence that they have one of the victim’s online passwords and claims to have put malware on the victim’s computer that lets them capture keystrokes, watch the webcam, and track online history that may be private, such as visits to adult websites. They threaten to share this information with the victim’s contacts unless the victim pays hush money in the form of Bitcoin.
  • Cryptocurrency scams where the scammer sends a message about a virtual currency investment opportunity and claims that the virtual currency investment involves no risk and sure profits.
  • Fake check/overpayment scams where the scammer sends a bad check to pay for an item, a sweepstakes award, lottery winnings, a grant, or a scholarship and then asks that some of the money be returned for fees to claim the award or overpayment.

An increased focus on education and assistance can thwart scam attempts. One, let’s do our best to educate our elders about the pervasiveness of scammers and the types of scams they might come across. Two, let’s be sensitive to our elders who may be filling new financial shoes and walk them through how to handle everything. Three, if they are unable to take charge of their finances, agree on a trusted person to assist them whenever needed. This could be as casual as helping make a phone call to a credit card company or as involved as creating a joint account with the trusted person’s name on it. If our elders don’t feel as alone and are willing to ask for help when uncertainty arises, then as families we can better fight back against the exploitation of some of the more vulnerable members of the population.

For prevention resources or if you or someone you know has been a victim of elder fraud, visit the Office for Victims of Crime website or call the National Elder Fraud hotline at 833-FRAUD-11.

 

[1] https://www.fbi.gov/contact-us/field-offices/losangeles/news/fbi-los-angeles-raises-public-awareness-about-elder-fraud-announces-arrests-made-this-week-of-men-who-allegedly-targeted-elderly-victims-in-timeshare-scheme

[2] https://ovc.ojp.gov/program/stop-elder-fraud/common-scams-and-warning-signs

The Ongoing Property Tax Debate – California’s Proposition 5

Election season is fast approaching and eleven propositions are on the California ballot. The perennial challenge is to find the time to learn enough about each one to make informed choices, so I hope that providing a historical context for Proposition 5, currently on the ballot, is useful. Proposition 5 addresses the transfer of a home’s taxable value, in a long line of predecessor propositions addressing this same issue. Here is a brief survey of the related propositions, each of which amended the well-known and hotly-debated Proposition 13 to change who can transfer their home’s taxable value and how the transfers work.

Proposition 13 (1978): Decreased property taxes by using 1976 assessed property values, set tax rates at 1% of a property’s sale price, and capped annual increases at no more than 2%. Reassessment of a new base year value was prohibited except in the case of a change in ownership or the completion of new construction.

Proposition 58 (1986): Allowed the transfer of a primary residence between spouses or between parents and children without a reset on the home’s taxable value. In other words, the recipient of a house, whether a spouse or a child, would continue to pay the taxable value based on the limit set following the 1976 tax assessment.

Proposition 60 (1986): Allowed homeowners age 55 or older to transfer the taxable value of their present home to a replacement home, assuming the replacement home was of equal or lesser value, located within the same county, and purchased within two years of selling the original home.

Proposition 90 (1988): Allowed homeowners age 55 or older to transfer the taxable value of their present home to a replacement home in another county, but only if the county in which the replacement home is located agrees to participate in the program.

Proposition 193 (1996): Extended Proposition 58 by allowing grandparents to transfer their primary residence to their grandchildren without a reset on the home’s taxable value, when both parents of the grandchildren are deceased.

Proposition 5 (2018): Extends Propositions 60 and 90 by allowing homeowners age 55 or older, severely disabled, or who have contaminated or disaster-destroyed property, to transfer the taxable value of their present home to a replacement home, no matter the value of the replacement home, its location, or how many times the buyer has moved. The difference in market value between the present and replacement home would adjust the taxable value upward if the replacement home is worth more than the present home and downward if the replacement home is worth less than the present home. From Ballotpedia, the calculations are as follows:

Upward adjustment: (taxable value of present home) + [(replacement home’s market value) – (present home’s market value)]

Example: An individual sold her house for $500,000. The house had a taxable value of $75,000. She bought a replacement house for $800,000. The taxable value of the replacement house would be ($75,000) + [($800,000) – ($500,000)] = $375,000.

Downward adjustment: (taxable value of present home) × [(replacement home’s market value) ÷ (present home’s market value)]

Example: An individual sold his house for $500,000. The house had a taxable value of $75,000. He bought a replacement house for $300,000. The taxable value of the replacement house would be ($75,000) × [($300,000) ÷ ($500,000)] = $45,000.

It is once again up to the voter to decide if this is a ballot initiative that will continue to ease the homeowner’s tax burden and promote a culture of homeownership, or if it will continue to build up the tax disparity between older homeowners who pay lower tax rates and are disincentivized to move, and younger renters who want to buy but can’t afford the cost of entry at higher tax rates and suffer from a housing shortage. Affecting both sides, Californians are some of the most highly taxed people in the country, and the loss of revenue created by lower property taxes has resulted in higher taxes everywhere else.

 

Estate Planning Essentials: The Durable Financial Power of Attorney

You are likely familiar with the concept of a power of attorney, a legal document that allows someone else to act on your behalf. Legal terminology denotes the individual designating the power of attorney the “principal” and the designated person the “attorney-in-fact”. There can be multiple attorneys-in-fact, but of course they must make decisions in concert. The scope of the power can be limited or broad, but the purpose is for the attorney-in-fact to make decisions that are in the best interests of the principal. A broad power of attorney is an attempt by the principal to give their attorney-in-fact the same rights the principal would have if they were able to act on their own behalf.

What does “durable” mean? A power of attorney goes into effect upon signing and terminates if the principal becomes incapacitated. Adding the durable specification means that the power of attorney will stay in effect if the principal becomes incapacitated. There is also the option to add a “springing” specification, which means that the durable power of attorney does not go into effect upon signing, but springs into effect if the principal becomes incapacitated. This addresses the situation whereby the principal wants to remain in control until they are unable to do so, and only at that point does the attorney-in-fact take over. While this is efficient, a drawback of the springing specification is that there could be disputes over whether or not the incapacity has occurred.

In addition to the durable financial power of attorney discussed here (also called a durable power of attorney for finances), there is a durable medical power of attorney (also called a durable power of attorney for health care). With a durable financial power of attorney, the attorney-in-fact has the right to pay bills, deposit checks, file tax returns, buy and sell real estate, invest in securities, make gifts, and even sue, among other things.  As one would expect, with the durable medical power of attorney, the attorney-in-fact has the right to make health care decisions for the principal in the event of incapacity. Due to their different concerns, and even if the attorney-in-fact is the same for both of them, these two documents should be drawn up separately for purposes of privacy and simplicity.

Families can benefit from having a durable financial power of attorney in place if there’s a significant chance that an older family member will become incapacitated due to disability, illness, or age. A durable financial power of attorney can prevent the family from having to go through the court system to appoint a guardian or conservator to manage the principal’s financial affairs. Additionally, a durable financial power of attorney can make it easier for a family member to take the helm and avoid conflict with other family members.

You don’t have to be older to benefit from having a durable financial power of attorney in place, because you never know if an accident might happen that could lead to your own incapacity and leave financial chaos behind. For example, it’s common for spouses to have durable financial powers of attorney for one another in case something happens to one of them. In community property states especially, many transactions require the signature of both spouses, and so it’s prudent for spouses to confer durable financial power of attorney upon one another. Some community property states such as California already provide that if one spouse becomes incapacitated, the other spouse automatically assumes the management of the community property. Which, to avoid conflict, makes it important that the other spouse and the attorney-in-fact are the same person.

In your suite of estate planning documents, a durable financial power of attorney could be an essential one.