2004 Finalist
Riverside County, California
Innovations in American Government Awards
Innovations in American Government Awards

Each year, millions of Americans are bombarded with ads or phone calls promoting magical moneymaking investments, sweepstakes, pyramid or matrix schemes, and other fraudulent sales pitches. Many trusting souls buy into the promises of instant wealth, only to later find out that such programs almost always are really too good to be true.

Senior citizens strike many con artists as a particularly ripe target for such scams; often living in isolation, with fewer ways of checking out the false information provided by smooth-talking strangers, seniors account for 60% of all victims contacting the National Fraud Information Center. Many elderly citizens live on modest, fixed sources of income; even relatively low-level instances of fraud or theft can leave them struggling to get by, or forced out of their homes into institutional care, at a huge cost to the state.

Such schemes are only one element of a broad pattern of exploitation and abuse affecting some of our nation's most vulnerable citizens. According to the authors of the 2003 book Elder Mistreatment, between one and two million elderly Americans have been "injured, exploited, or otherwise mistreated by someone on whom they depended for care or protection."

Despite the magnitude of this problem, elder abuse is still a largely unstudied and untreated problem in American society. Experts estimate that the vast majority of cases of elder mistreatment are not reported, either by the victims or their relatives and caretakers, who often fail to notice telltale signs of abuse.

Alarmed by the drastic rise in the number of cases of elders being abused and exploited in Riverside County, dedicated community member Margot Hamilton formed a committee in 1996 that would result in the founding of the Curtailing Abuse Related to the Elderly (C.A.R.E.) program, an attempt to ensure fair and legal treatment of elders in the county.

Its approach works on a variety of levels. C.A.R.E. teams assist and support Riverside County's three mandatory Multidisciplinary Teams (MDT), groups of governmental and charity agencies that meet to determine the best ways to combat abuse and work to protect their elderly clients.

In addition to the basic work of responding to cases of abuse, the group runs a Community Anti-Fraud Education program, consisting of a series of presentations given at senior centers and care facilities that detail common schemes, and how to avoid being cheated by unscrupulous merchants.

Through their Gatekeeper Training programs, C.A.R.E. helps community members who regularly interact with elders (i.e., bank officials, law enforcement, clergy, health workers) to recognize the warning signs of abuse or fraud, and to report suspected offenses promptly.

As of 2004, C.A.R.E.-in spite of not being formally mandated by the government and, thus, vulnerable to budget fluctuations and lack of resources-has assisted 2600 victims of consumer fraud and reported 1010 cases of elder abuse to Adult Protective Services (APS) and other law enforcement agencies. The teams report recovering over $11 million of elder victims' money, and saved another $3.5 million from being taken in the first place.

In an effort to help care providers and law enforcement officials across the country stop the abuse of elderly Americans, C.A.R.E. has prepared a wide variety of presentations, training manuals, and other printed materials.