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Grandparents Getting Ripped Off Is A $3 Billion Problem

CHICAGO (CBS) -- Many seniors suffering from dementia are getting fleeced out of their money, often by someone they know.

"He had lung cancer and he had advanced dementia," Paul Barnett said of his uncle near the end of his life.

After fighting in the Korean War Ollie settled in a Park Manor home, later collecting a nice pension from his days working at Chicago Public Schools.

"My uncle was receiving $4,200 a month," Barnett said.

Barnett said Robert Griffin was his uncle's friend and would help him out.

"Mow the lawn and shovel snow and go to the store for him," Barnett said.

When Uncle Ollie recently died, Barnett took possession of the estate and noticed suspicious activity on a bank account he shared with his uncle.

"There were a lot of checks for cash for $5,000 just written out to "Cash," he said.

By Barnett's analysis, the checks in question totaled more than $100,000. All were signed by Ollie Smith, but Barnett said his uncle's friend, Robert Griffin, told him he signed Ollie Smith's name on the checks even though he didn't have power of attorney.

Griffin would not talk to CBS 2 Investigators on camera but did say twice during phone conversations that he signed the checks in question using the name Ollie Smith.

Griffin claims that Ollie asked him to sign the checks because he no longer could, and he claims he used the money to pay bills for Ollie but can't provide a detailed accounting of the funds.

And there's a Veterans insurance policy for $10,000. The beneficiary changed to Robert Griffin – signed by Ollie Smith – but after Paul objected the Veterans Administration ruled the signature was a forgery and gave the money to Paul.

Again Griffin claims Ollie told him to sign his name.

Barnett said he thinks Griffin took advantage of his uncle and his dementia.

"Oh yes, definitely," he said. "It's called undue influence."

To make matters worse, Paul Barnett's name was on his uncle's account at Hyde Park Bank. But he was never notified of the large withdrawals for cash.

A spokesman for Hyde Park bank said they cannot comment on specific bank procedures, but they do take elderly abuse very seriously and provide training for their staff.

Charles Golbert, acting Cook County Public Guardian, says the problem is "huge and it's growing, and it's continuing to grow."

It's Golbert's job to protect the money and property of those who can't do it themselves and have no one else to help.

"Today with the aging baby boomers, robbing older people is a lot easier than robbing banks, and its where the money is today," he said.

Forty percent of the new cases in the public guardian's office involve  financial theft of the elderly,

One such recent case involves Symphony nursing home.

"A worst case because of the top to bottom level of corruption," Goldberg said.

Grace Watanabe suffers from Dementia. According to a civil suit filed by the public guardian's office on Grace's behalf, staff members at the Symphony nursing home stole more than $700,000 by forging her name on some checks and accessing her ATM account.

"They were really preying on her and trying to make her feel terrible about having money and not sharing with them," said Dawn Lawkowski-Keller.

Watanabe said it makes her feel "angry and just terribly disappointed."

And 96-Year old Nellie Bridgeman, who also suffers from dementia, was allegedly fleeced out of $330,000 by Nicholas Chervyatiuk, a priest at Nelly's church.

Bridgeman said she trusted him -- at first.

"I figured if you can't trust a priest who can you trust?" she said.

Chervyatiuk is charged with theft and is awaiting trial.

"He shouldn't have done that. That's not his," Bridgeman said.

About half of the states in the US have laws requiring banks to report suspected elder financial abuse. Illinois does not.

The public guardians office says such a law would help stop these types of cases much earlier on.

"Illinois is behind the curve on this," Golbert said "Every time it's been proposed the banks lobbyists have knocked it down."

The Illinois Bankers Association says the industry "treats the issue of financial exploitation extremely seriously" but is concerned about banks "overly-reporting on customers" which could lead to "violating the customers' expectations of trust and privacy."

Golberts concern remains on the victims who end up losing their money.

When asked about the people who would do that to elderly people, Golbert said, "They're scum. They're also cowards, Don't pick on people with dementia and physical infirmities and who are vulnerable and who are alone."

Chicago police confirm they are investigating the case involving Ollie Smith's money. A spokesperson for Symphony Residences says that upon learning about the incident with Grace Watanabe they contacted law enforcement and are cooperating with the investigation. They added that the employees named in the public guardians suit no longer work there.

Experts urge family members in cases like this to keep an eye on their loved ones' financial statements.


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