Book Review: “Elder Fraud Wars” by David Neil Kirkman

By Colin K. Austin

As Elder Law attorneys, we need to be aware of the dangers our clients face from a number of fraudulent scams that can quickly deplete their assets. One good resource is a new book, “Elder Fraud Wars: Case Histories from an Enforcement Attorney” (Exposit, 2020). Author David Neil Kirkman is a recently retired attorney who spent most of his career working with the Consumer Protection Division of the North Carolina Attorney General’s Office. In his book, Kirkman recounts stories and specific cases that he encountered during his time managing the Elder Fraud Unit.

Why are the elderly at extraordinary risk of being scammed? Kirkman quotes Willie Sutton’s response when asked why he robbed banks: “Because that’s where the money is.” According to the most recent Survey of Consumer Finances from the Federal Reserve Board (2017), median wealth in the U.S. for those who are 35-44 years old is $60,000 while the median wealth figure for those who are 65 years old and over is above $225,000. Kirkman also presents a set of other key victim vulnerabilities for the elderly, including many situations that we routinely encounter with our elderly clients: 100% equity in their home, physical or emotional isolation, impairments such as immobility, limited eyesight or hearing, cognitive decline, and loneliness. Elderly individuals may also have the desire to be decision makers again and to have something important happening in their lives. Any combination of these factors presents an opportunity for professional scammers to present themselves and take advantage of elderly individuals.

Throughout the book, Kirkman provides engaging stories from his work on elder fraud cases. Some of the most widespread scamming practices include:

  • Home repairs: A “contractor” stops by a house and tells the elderly resident that they can see some rot around their roof. The contractor then investigates and finds more and more issues that are supposedly dangerous and need to be resolved immediately. By placing pressure on the elderly homeowner, the contractor returns again and again and does nominal work to resolve issues that do not actually exist.
  • Driveway paving: A group of workers stop by a home, claiming to have leftover asphalt, and offer to pave the driveway at cost. The “leader” of the workers ingratiates himself with the homeowner, and the asphalt is immediately spread with little to no prep work. The elderly homeowner is then told that the cost is five to ten thousand dollars or more. If the homeowner objects, the crew becomes belligerent and applies emotional pressure.
  • Lotteries: The elderly person receives a call, letter, or email that states that they have won a significant lottery prize. All they need to do is send a few hundred dollars (or more) to pay for the transaction costs of sending them the winnings. This can be repeated and escalate into bigger and bigger phony prizes.
  • Telephone scams: One common scam is a phone call from a supposed IRS agent that scares the elderly person by saying that they owe back taxes and must immediately send thousands of dollars or the local Sheriff will be called. Another frequent scam is a call from someone claiming to be a grandchild that is in jail for a driving violation or on a trip in a foreign country and needs emergency cash. In both of these situations, the scammer convinces the victim to purchase a cash or gift card and then read the account information over the phone.

Of additional interest to attorneys are the details that Kirkman provides of legal processes and remedies, and the interplay (and at times comradery) between state, federal, and local officials who are grappling to deal with many levels of fraudulent activities.

The extent of the problem is significant. Kirkman’s Elder Fraud Project worked with as many as 2,000 victims per year in North Carolina although the actual report rate is estimated to be only 2%. Each victim had been scammed on average four times already, with individual losses ranging from the thousands to the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“Elder Fraud Wars” is a helpful resource for Elder Law practitioners. Kirkman’s writing style brings the issues to life and provides detailed case studies that are rarely found in legal literature. While Kirkman provides data to support his observations, the real value of the book is in the journalistic accounts that give a fuller picture of how elder fraud occurs and the complicated reasons as to why it is often successful.

By educating ourselves about fraud, Elder Law attorneys can recognize the signs and understand the psychological pressure our clients may be subjected to by scammers. “Elder Fraud Wars” reminds us that we have an obligation to inform and protect our vulnerable clients and keep ourselves updated on elder fraud issues.