Leading the fight against elderly exploitation: How intern investigators are making a difference
Dr. David P. Weber, who blew the whistle on misconduct in the Bernie Madoff and R. Allen Stanford cases, is using a $2.6M grant to oversee interns investigating fraudsters preying on the elderly
“Everybody counts or nobody counts.” Harry Bosch, by Michael Connelly
“Let me know if a high-tech/financial investigation article in the austere and beautiful Chesapeake Bay region would interest you. It’s gnarly.”
That was the message from a Salisbury University professor in charge of a unique grant-funded program teaching fraud and forensic accounting, but I wasn’t sure why Dr. David P. Weber would want to talk to me about it.
It turns out that the program revolves around an especially vile sort of rural crime: fraudsters and scammers preying on vulnerable, isolated elderly victims. I also discovered that the “accounting professor” was far more complex than he seemed from the modest release on the university website.
Park ranger, whistleblower
Weber began his career as a National Park Service law enforcement ranger in upstate New York, finishing a law degree while rangering full time. (His flat hat was on a shelf behind him during our interview, his badge in lucite beside it.) The child of a Holocaust survivor and the first in his family to speak English, let alone attend college, he was driven to achieve. He’s a lawyer, a State Guard JAG officer assigned to the Maryland National Guard, a certified fraud examiner, and most notably, the retired chief investigator for the Securities and Exchange Commission who blew the whistle on misconduct in the Bernie Madoff and R. Allen Stanford cases.
“You can’t hide a million victims,” he said of the Ponzi schemes that robbed pension funds of billions, in his prior career at the SEC. Pursuing justice for those victims foreshadowed the program he now oversees, training student interns to investigate elder fraud on the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay. Retirees move to the Delmarva region for its wild beauty and discover too late there are no resources as they age. Elderly citizens are frequently victimized no matter where they live but in isolated places, there’s no one to catch them before they fall.
Isolation and exploitation
“This is more like Alaska than the rural East,” Weber said. He described a “tyranny of distance” that isn’t miles but inaccessibility, islands with their own dialects and cultures, dependent on seasonal industries like crabbing and tourism. The criminals targeting senior victims with bank and credit card fraud are often acquaintances or even family members because pension and Social Security checks keep coming during the off-season. They may be poor, but their income is steady.
“These are inhabited islands in the poorest, most rural of counties,” he said, complicated by some parts of the region belonging to Maryland and others to Virginia. “Worcester County, Maryland has the highest unemployment rate in the state. Accomack and Northampton are the only counties in Virginia not attached to Virginia. They’re only accessible via Maryland, by boat or a bridge-bay-tunnel that connects with Virginia Beach, a round trip drive that can take three hours or more. We’re talking about an area of more than 2,100 square miles of water and land. Now take all that, and add in a cypress swamp to the south, the North Atlantic Ocean and barrier beaches to the east, and the Chesapeake Bay to the west and north, and you start to see why this is so unusual. Investigators literally have to take a sheriff’s office boat, Coast Guard vessel, or helicopter to investigations on the water or the inhabited Chesapeake islands.”
Local law enforcement agencies responsible for the safety of these remote places are understaffed and underfunded; officers regularly leave for other career fields and more liveable pay scales. Before Weber’s internship program began, Accomack County had four investigators to follow up on all crime reports, leaving few resources for complex investigations of high-tech crimes targeting elderly, and often uncooperative, victims.
It’s not only law enforcement that is sparse. The obstacles to staffing LEOs impact other social safety nets as well.
“There aren’t enough doctors, virtually no specialists. There are almost no accountants or social workers. There are no home health care companies, and virtually no attorneys to help with estate planning. The victims are extremely socially isolated,” Weber said. “The safety net for elders is limited, if even existent. Fraud could go on for months before being revealed. There are major health impacts to this kind of exploitation. Some victims end up in nursing care, often on the mainland, and some become incompetent to testify, so any criminal case must be built on evidence.” In fact, one fraud target became homeless, impoverished and incapacitated by nine separate victimizations over time.
Insurmountable obstacles, imagination and innovation
Realistically, there would probably never be enough funding and staffing for local law enforcement to manage investigations of ongoing complex, high-tech crimes against multiple frail victims scattered over more than 2,000 square miles of water, land and sand. Even more frustrating, some victims refused to report the crimes because they did not understand them, or because they were ashamed. Others balked at removing malicious software from their computers and phones; those were their lifelines to the outside world, the places where precious photos of grandchildren lived. Losing those links to loved ones seemed worse than being swindled.
Investigating financial crimes requires time, technology and access to resources. To address that lack, Weber wrote a 114-page grant proposal to the Department of Health and Human Services, describing his ideas for pursuing justice in these cases, and asking for the funds to implement them. The entire $2.6 million proposal was approved and then renewed the next year.
It was the ultimate win-win. He was deputized as an assistant commonwealth attorney in Accomack County, Virginia and appointed as an Elder Fraud Program Supervisor in neighboring Worcester County in Maryland, granting Weber the authority to supervise the student investigators at no cost beyond his existing salary. The young, tech-savvy interns would investigate elder fraud cases, and turn over their findings for enforcement.
The seven students who participated in the first year encountered some bugs: fuel costs for personally owned vehicles were unmanageable, and medical and financial records accessed on student cell phones and laptops were unsecured. Those snags were fixed in the next round of grant funding, with the purchase of dedicated cell phones and computers, vehicles for student use, and a budget for fuel.
When interns contacted crime victims, they discovered some problems beyond their scope and abilities. Many of the victims had unaddressed illnesses; some were cognitively impaired. Nearly all were lonely. The latest round of grant funding also added positions for victim-witness advocates to travel with the student interns, enabling connection with medical help and social resources.
Interest grew as word got out about the interns’ investigative successes. In the second year of the program, enrollment grew from seven students to 20. This fall, the third crop of interns numbers 38, an 80% increase in a single year.
The big idea: Justice and public service
“The idea of an academic grant was a hypothesis,” Weber said. “And for this grant, the hypothesis was, ‘If they provide student tuition support, it will greatly increase interest in public service’.” That hypothesis has proven correct.
Not only has student interest in the program increased, but a significant number of the interns have already gone into public service. Exorbitant student debt is an obstacle to recruiting in the public sector: the jobs simply don’t pay enough for a new graduate to build a career and also pay back enormous loans. The tuition support for the intern investigators relieves that burden. As a result, Weber says, about half of the program’s graduates have already been hired for public service positions, about half of them in law enforcement. Others have expressed interest in working with adult protective services.
“People are dying over this,” Weber said. “These victims can’t vote, can’t protect themselves, can’t even tell anyone. If we don’t care for the most minimalized citizens in our society, what does that say about us? This is an example of the federal government taking a risk to see if it can help.”
And it turns out, it can.