Ahead of World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, Justice Department takes action

By Clare Hymes

/ CBS News

Millions of seniors have been falling victim to some form of elder abuse, neglect or monetary manipulation around the world. It's a problem here in the U.S., too. On Friday — the day before World Elder Abuse Awareness Day — thirty-three-year-old Yahaira Diaz, of Pottsville, Pennsylvania, was accused by federal prosecutors of taking part in what's now being called "Grandparents Scheme."

Diaz and others are believed to have called senior citizens, posing as either a grandchild or as the attorney of a grandchild. They would claim the grandchild has been charged with driving under the influence or has been in a car accident that injured a pregnant woman or a child, for instance. The elderly victims would then be coaxed into sending thousands of dollars to the conspirators, who would keep calling and asking for money until the victims realized they had been defrauded.

The operation targeted at least 10 senior citizens and robbed them of at least $158,800, according to the charging information. Diaz and her co-conspirators allegedly also tried to defraud their victims out of an additional $69,000. She faces a maximum of 72 years in prison if convicted.

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"Crimes against the elderly target some of the most vulnerable people in our society, and schemes like the 'Grandparent Scheme' are particularly heinous because they prey on a senior's love for their family," said U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania William M. McSwain in a press release. "The Department of Justice is committed to protecting our seniors from fraud, and my Office will continue to prioritize prosecuting criminals who prey on our elderly residents."

According to the United Nations, about one in six elderly people suffer from some type of abuse. This is in part because humans are living longer than they used to, and it's why rates of abuse are only expected to rise.

In the U.S., the Justice Department under the Trump administration has increased its efforts to combat crimes that Attorney General William Barr says, "target some of the most vulnerable people in our society."

On Thursday, Attorney General Barr announced the creation of the Transnational Elder Justice Strike Force. This interagency effort was formed to fight fraud against seniors in the U.S. that is committed by actors abroad, through telemarketing, mail, or tech-support schemes.

The Strike Force calls on a variety of agencies, including the FBI, the Consumer Protection branch of the Justice Department, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, and six U.S. attorney offices across the country.

"It doesn't matter where these criminals live. We're committed to keeping our elderly citizens safe, whether they're being targeted door-to-door, over the phone, or online, from thousands of miles away," FBI Director Christopher Wray said of the group.

According to the Justice Department, only one in 44 cases of financial abuse that target the elderly are reported.

In March, the department announced the largest ever law enforcement action in this area. It charged more than 260 defendants from around the world for crimes against over two million American victims, most of whom were elderly, resulting in millions of dollars in losses.

"This year's sweep involves 13 percent more criminal defendants, 28 percent more in losses, and twice the number of fraud victims as last year's sweep," Barr said in March. "Together, we are bringing justice and peace of mind to America's seniors."

The Justice Department encourages victims to report abuse to their local FBI office and to the FTC's Consumer Sentinel at www.ftc.gov or 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357).

First published on June 14, 2019 / 6:53 PM

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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