Although the details differ, Swenson’s story is not untypical of the estimated 5 million cases of elder financial exploitation that occur every year in the US, according to the New York State Elder Abuse Prevalence Study done in 2011. It is estimated that only 1 in 25 cases of financial exploitation is ever reported.
In 2005, Swenson was living on his own for the first time in decades, driving his truck over to see his adult children regularly, and going to his job at the auto body shop where he had worked most of his life.
It was then that he met Lisa O’Neill at a neighborhood bar. She quickly befriended Swenson. O’Neill’s financial picture was not as robust as Swenson’s. She had less than $500 in a bank account and had consumer debt of $47,000.
She slowly and deliberately began to gain influence over his financial affairs.
O’Neill’s sudden appearance and quick friendship should have sounded alarm bells somewhere, but as often is the case, no one seemed to see danger on the horizon, especially Swenson. The majority of victims of financial abuse are living alone and vulnerable to people who appear to want to take advantage of their resources.
A year after their meeting, O’Neill convinced Swenson to leave his house and live in her basement for $500 a month. Swenson believed that in time their relationship would become more intimate. He told his three adult children that someday he expected that “Lisa might be their stepmother.”
Over the next three years, Swenson’s finances slowly unravelled. All his social security checks were signed over to O’Neill. He made large cash withdrawals from his savings, which went directly to O’Neill. She convinced him to establish a joint bank account with a line of credit. The ATM card associated with the account was also in her hands. His two life insurance policies were cashed out in January 2007.
According to court documents filed by the prosecutor’s office in Kent, Washington, Swenson’s children became concerned about the large amounts of money Swenson was giving to O’Neill. But believing that they would get married, Swenson told his children, “It don’t make no difference.”
According to law enforcement officials, it is difficult to prosecute these cases because the victim often appears to consent to the financial arrangements. There was little that Swenson’s children could do to intervene.
When Swenson had a stroke in February 2007, O’Neill told Swenson she would continue to take care of him at her house. She took away his cell phone; his truck and his house were repossessed for non-payment, his savings were depleted. With no phone and transportation, he was essentially isolated from his children and they were not allowed to visit.
When Swenson became reluctant to do as O’Neill wanted, she bullied him emotionally, calling him “a fagot” and a “leprechaun.” She pushed Swenson down a flight of stairs and refused to take him to the hospital. She told him “not to say anything to anyone” and “not to talk at all” to anyone.
There are actually more cases of financial abuse than physical abuse according to the New York study. In fact, it is often financial abuse that leads to incidents of physical abuse.
Now, after three years, Swenson wanted out. He waited until O’Neill was asleep upstairs. He then crept out of the basement with a plastic bag containing his belongings. Everything else was gone - the truck, his house, his savings, his credit rating, his dignity, and he owed over $10,000 on a line of credit.
O’Neill, on the other hand, was debt free.
The courts charged O’Neill with 14 counts of theft, plus domestic violence and assault.
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According to the New York State study, the most common victims are Caucasian women in their 80s, and living alone. They are most often victimized by a relative under the age of 34. About a third of the victims are men, the rest are women.
The perpetrators are often people who appear to be helping the victims and slowly achieve a “position of trust.”
The study cites changing demographics as the reason for the increasing prevalence of financial elder abuse. An aging population combined with difficult economic conditions leads people to look for ways to access resources of older Americans. It is a crime that flies well below the radar in many cases, and often the perpetrators, sadly, go unimpeded.