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Editorial: Law would help prevent exploitation of the elderly

From The Herald-Dispatch of Huntington:Taking financial advantage of elderly citizens is not really a new thing, but experts say it is on the rise.

In fact some surveys show that of all the types of elder abuse – physical, emotional, neglect – financial abuse is becoming the most common. A recent AARP survey of West Virginians over the age of 45 found that about one in five respondents said they knew someone who had been a victim of financial abuse.

Certainly the increase in Internet and telephone scams has played a role, and those go far beyond the simply “phishing” for passwords and Social Security numbers to include sophisticated scams involving annuities, trusts, deeds and reverse mortgages – to name a few.

But many of the perpetrators are not strangers. They are family members, caregivers, neighbors, acquaintances or professionals who use their positions of trust to gain access to older resident’s finances.

Some of those may even have gained power of attorney for their victim, but then use deception, coercion or threats to misappropriate cash, real estate, investments or insurance for their own benefit. Especially in recent years, the opioid epidemic has contributed to more of these cases.

A number of states have been working to strengthen their protection of vulnerable seniors, and this session lawmakers in West Virginia House are considering action as well.

House Bill 2404 would enhance criminal penalties regarding abuse, neglect or exploitation of vulnerable individuals, but it would also make it more difficult for those found guilty of these crimes to benefit financially. In some cases, even though a family member may have been convicted of taking advantage of an older loved one, they still stand to inherit property and money from their victim.

It makes sense to close that gap.

Like most states, West Virginia has “disinheritance” legislation that prevents killers from inheriting from their victims. HB 2402 would expand that law to disqualify someone from inheriting if they have been convicted of financial exploitation of the deceased.

Delegate Matt Rohrbach (R-District 17) from Cabell County is one of the sponsors of the bill, which passed the House without a single no vote in late February. The legislation is now on the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Tuesday agenda, and we hope it will move forward.

But it is also important that families and seniors educate themselves about these problems. In West Virginia, a broad coalition of agency representatives, advocates and attorneys has formed the West Virginia Financial Exploitation Task Force to better protect vulnerable older residents. For more information or to report suspected exploitation, you can contact that group at 1-800-352-6513 or the Attorney General’s Elderly Hotline at 1-866-241-5062.

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