Elderly often crime targets

The Baltimore Sun

John Hopkins geriatrician Dr. Robert Burton has heard far too many stories like that of Nancy Schmidt, the 74-year-old woman who was attacked in her Remington home this week.

"I think older people are particularly vulnerable to crime ..." Burton said, ticking off horror story after horror story of patients he has known who have been similarly victimized. "Particularly single women living alone are somehow preferentially targeted."

From 1993 to 2002, people age 65 or older were less likely to be victims of violent and property crimes than younger persons, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Still, experts say, it is true that older Americans need to be especially vigilant when it comes to all kinds of crimes, particularly those of fraud, identity theft and telemarketing scams.

"It's a terrible thing to have happen; everyone's upset by it," said Sterling Clifford, a spokesman for Baltimore police, about the Schmidt case. "It's a situation we have with these seniors who live alone and they are vulnerable to things that younger people might not be."

Although it isn't clear that the victimization rate of seniors is any higher than that of other age groups, "the consequences are more severe," said Bob Blancato, national coordinator of the Elder Justice Coalition. "Whether it's the physical harm or the psychological harm done or the financial loss, it's much harder to recover from if you're older."

Based in Washington, the Elder Justice Coalition has been the chief advocate for the Elder Justice Act, a bill introduced by Rep. Rahm Emanuel, an Illinois Democrat, that aims to make elder abuse more of a focus in crime prevention.

"Criminals prey on all people, but they particularly prey on older people because they recognize them as an easy victim to get," said Blancato, who testified last week before the House subcommittee on crime about the merits of the bill.

"Sometimes they're more trusting even though they have no reason to be," Blancato said. "Once they let down a guard of any kind, then you have an invitation for trouble."

Burton, who is director of the Johns Hopkins Geriatric Education Center, has known patients who have done just that.

One patient went in her house through a side door with groceries and left the door unlocked. Then, a stranger knocked on the front door. As she talked to him, another person slipped in the side door and began to steal items her home.

"When she finally understands what's going on, she goes to call the police and she's beaten," Burton said. "And, I must say, badly. She's suffered post-traumatic stress."

Another patient had $300 stolen by a person who claimed to be from a local community service agency, Burton said. He also remembers an 80-year-old patient who was raped and another who was targeted by a caller who insisted he was a friend of the patient's son and needed money for an emergency.

"I could go on and on. I hear these stories all week," Burton said. "It's devastating. It's why older people lock their doors 26 times and become increasingly isolated and never come out."

Baltimore police say Schmidt was stabbed Monday by an apparent burglar, who may have encountered the elderly woman after breaking into her house in the Remington neighborhood near Johns Hopkins University.

Police in Montgomery County have been investigating a series of home invasions in which all the victims were over the age of 75. In those cases, the seniors were tied up by the burglars.

These are the kinds of crimes that send seniors into depression and sometimes force them to move into retirement communities, Burton said.

"It is a major-league societal problem that I don't know an easy answer to," he said.

Experts say there are some things that seniors can do to protect themselves from abuse, schemes and other forms of victimization.

The Maryland attorney general's office works to protect seniors from financial exploitation, said Jeffrey H. Myers, assistant attorney general and principal counsel to the Maryland Department of Aging.

Myers said seniors should use direct deposit for Social Security checks and other income. They should also beware of callers who promise deals that sound "too good to be true." And many seniors don't use ATM cards but keep them lying around.

"If you're not using an ATM card, cut it up," Myers said. ""

Blancato urged seniors to never open the door to strangers or share information about their assets or identification.

"Never offer anything, not even a phone," he said. "And if you have any doubt, don't deal with them."

No one wants to see older residents becoming further isolated out of fear, said Burton. Instead, he hopes stories like what happened to Schmidt will remind seniors to be cautious and ever-vigilant.

"I think we need to alert the public to this," he said.


An article in Friday's editions of The Sun misidentified the director of the Johns Hopkins Geriatric Education Center. His name is Dr. John R. Burton.The Sun regrets the error.
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