Imagine that you meet two individuals today at a senior center. Each offers to help you identify some important resources that will make your life better. Both of these people identify themselves as volunteers for nonprofit advocacy organizations. They tell you that, as an older adult, you are eligible for some generous support through programs that you had no idea even existed. Both of these kind individuals express a genuine wish to help you gain access to these benefits, so your life can turn around and you can start living more comfortably.
On the surface, these promises are not impossible or unlikely. But one of these individuals is not who they seem: They are not volunteering to connect you with resources for your own best interests. In fact, they are in the business of manipulating your financial situation and crippling your freedom for their own profit. They have a great deal of support in this scheme, and until recently, there was not a lot of visibility or accountability for these offenses against older adults and their hard-earned assets.
The good news is that the other volunteer is exactly who they profess to be and more. There are individuals and organizations working hard every day to prevent these cases of elder financial abuse. And these same honest, compassionate organizations are also working to deliver on the promises originally introduced: well-meaning programs and services to help older adults stay connected to their communities and the resources they need—and to help them live in their homes for as long as possible.
Institute on Aging (IOA) is one such organization that was recently honored with an Innovation Award for our Veterans Benefits Protection Project. The project confronts elder financial abuse targeted at aging military veterans and their families in the form of pension poaching scams related to the Veterans Affairs (VA) Aid and Attendance Benefit.
This groundbreaking San Francisco program is supported by the California Office of the Attorney General, the California Department of Insurance, San Francisco Adult Protective Services, and the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Commission, among other influential and transparent institutions. The 2017 Aging Innovations & Achievement Award honors IOA for pioneering a grassroots approach to awareness, education, and response for the protection of aging veterans from financial abuse, The VBPP the first organization of its kind in the nation focusing on veteran pension poaching.
The goals of the Veterans Benefits Protection Project are to prevent fraud and abuse by:
- Educating individuals and communities about how to recognize the dangers of financial scams surrounding the VA Aid and Attendance Benefit.
- Responding to existing injustices.
- Undermining scammers and, ultimately, stopping these abusive schemes.
Says Tamari Hedani, Associate Director of the Elder Abuse Prevention Program, “In terms of having a coalition that’s combining state and local entities, it’s the first of its kind. So this is significant that we’re getting recognized on a national level … It helps fuel our enthusiasm. The work is just beginning.”
Why Is the VA Aid and Attendance Benefit a Danger to Ineligible Veterans and Their Families?
The VA Aid and Attendance Benefit was created to help older, low-income veterans whose combined income and assets do not allow them to afford certain medical and care basic needs, including necessary home care or other aging assistance. There are specific medical and financial conditions that must be met for a veteran or widowed spouse of a veteran to be eligible for this benefit.
In the cases of these scams, the inappropriate benefits that scammers promote come at a much greater cost to elderly veterans than the benefit really affords. These so-called volunteers and advocates present the VA Aid and Attendance Benefit as an “entitlement program”—a monetary stipend to supplement some of the Veteran’s financial responsibilities each month, no matter how much money he or she has. The trick is that these scammers would never target low-wealth veterans who are actually eligible for this benefit because there would be no room for financial gain on their part.
These agents put in place a scheme for older adults to appear “impoverished,” in order to “qualify” for this benefit. This is done by having the Veteran transfer his or her assets into unnecessary irrevocable trusts and financial products, such as annuities to create the appearance that he or she has very little in the way of net worth. The resulting monthly government benefit is both undeserved and damaging, especially when you factor in that veteran has given up control over their much-greater financial assets. The agent, in turn, has profited by selling the Veteran these unnecessary products and services, and has generated fees and commissions for him- or herself.
Once that money has been moved into these abusive products and services, these aging Veterans are able to “appear impoverished” and then apply for and seemingly qualify for the VA Aid and Attendance Benefit.
However, these seniors put themselves into a dangerous situation. Recently, The Department of Veterans Affairs has begun to audit some of these pension poaching cases. If it is determined that a Veteran has fraudulently qualified for the Veteran Benefit, they will not only lose the benefit itself, but will be required to pay back any benefit already paid to them, in addition, they will be “blacklisted”—prohibited from applying for Veterans Aid benefits for 10 years.
Considering how much money these individuals forfeit control of—sometimes unknowingly, when they think they are signing papers to apply for the benefit and are really signing over their money to these predators—the real benefit goes to the scam artists who receive significant commissions and fees by selling these manipulative products and services. The older adults who purchase these products often do not benefit from them, since they are often saddled with high surrender penalties and long surrender periods, should they need to withdraw money from them.
Above and beyond the direct impact on these entrapped older adults, these scams also do harm to the veterans and families who are, in fact, eligible for the benefit—and who really need it. Because so many have been qualifying and receiving the stipend (some inappropriately), the benefit is in danger of going bankrupt. Those who really need the assistance are in danger of having the money for the benefit dry up.
Also, if elders are audited and caught having done this practice to qualify, they may have to pay back all of the money they had received and get blacklisted for up to 10 years from receiving the benefit.
The tragedy reaches far, and these schemes should have been stopped before they ever started. That’s where IOA and its partners come in.
How Can You Recognize the Dangers?
The “Pension Poachers” working this scam understand that they need to first get your trust. They often identify themselves as “volunteers” or “advocates” leveraging patriotic image singly and authoritative literature. They promote this great benefit as something you’ll be able to fall back on and something that you should be receiving—something you’re entitled to.
The implication is that you are eligible to apply for this benefit, and they may even offer to help you with your application process. However, as a step toward eligibility, you are encouraged to purchase these products and services. That is where the red flag is undeniably apparent. The products and services that they persuade you to purchase are the scam. That is where the benefit lies for these scammers—in generating profits for themselves by artificially impoverishing older adults. That is where you end up signing over the control of your assets.
Keep an eye out for these tricky warning signs:
- If anyone is enticing you to purchase financial management products, be wary. Investigate first before agreeing to sign anything.
- Do not take official military or VA seals to mean that agents are affiliated and trustworthy. If they are encouraging you to purchase products to qualify for benefits, immediately assume that their intentions are not in your best interest. If you experience this kind of proposal, refer to the next section for action steps.
- If you are a caregiver or a professional advocate for an aging adult and you recognize these signs, do not let the agent push you or your loved one around. Instead, take action as outlined below.
How Can You Take Action If You’ve Been Subject to Elder Financial Abuse?
You are not to blame for being confused or convinced by these predators, but it is possible for you to be entirely in control in a situation like this when you know what signs to look for and when to say, “No.” We want you to know that every day, we are waiting for and receiving inquiries from people who have been touched by these kinds of schemes. And reporting elder abuse cases of all kinds is critical for a safer future for all of us.
Whether you have already been influenced to purchase products to qualify for a VA benefit, you had an encounter that reflects these red flags, or you just want to learn more about these dangers for yourself or someone else in your life, get in touch with us right away: call (415) 750-4111 or (650) 424-1411. We are just a phone call away, and we are in a position to connect you with the reliable agencies that can help. Even if it means that you falsified your benefit application under the persuasion of a predatory agent, we know it is not your fault and will help to put in place protections on your behalf.
Our goal is for IOA and its partners, in genuine advocacy, to represent that first morning visit, so that older adults everywhere might know how to recognize the other afternoon representative of ulterior motives and abusive mal-intent. And so that older adults may be reassured, again and again, that we are on their side because they are equal members of our society with absolutely every right to fair treatment and adequate resources for a full and fulfilling life at home.
The Veterans Benefits Protection Project was designed to be adaptable and replicable in different communities throughout the country. This scam is not limited to San Francisco, and the nationwide pathways to elder abuse must be altogether deconstructed. Institute on Aging is pursuing more grant funding to spread this program throughout the state of California and then beyond the state borders. Even starting at this very moment, everyone can lend a hand by spreading the word about these scams and patterns of abuse.
For more information, we are here to answer questions and to help you find the resources you need. Institute on Aging is committed to treating all people with dignity, compassion, and respect. Find our contact information here.