Disabled find caregivers can be culprits

Heather Walton hired a personal helper who allegedly stole from her. It took months to restore her credit, and no charges were filed.
ANDREW SNOW/THE BEE July 21, 2002 Posted: 07:05:06 AM PDT

By KERRY McCRAY
BEE STAFF WRITER
When Heather Walton hired a friend of a friend to help her bathe, dress and get into her wheelchair each morning, she didn't expect that person to rip her off.
But that's what Walton says happened. The 34-year-old, who uses a wheelchair because of a spinal cord injury, says her caregiver stole checks and credit cards and ran up about $3,000 in debt in her name.

Walton is not the only victim of this crime, called caretaker theft. Officials at one Modesto agency say seven disabled people have come to them for help for similar crimes so far this year.

Modesto police also say the thefts are a problem. They investigate one or two cases each month.

"A lot of caregivers have the opportunity to go in and take things from their victims," police spokesman Doug Ridenour said.

Caregivers can be family members or paid employees of elderly or disabled people. They can take anywhere from a few dollars to hundreds of thousands. Modesto police say the average theft is $10,000 and usually involves a caregiver charging on a credit card.

Not all caregivers are dishonest. But those who are usually operate in one of these ways, authorities say:

A disabled or elderly person gives a caregiver money to buy groceries or other necessities. The caregiver buys the goods and pockets the change.

A person gives a caregiver his or her bank card and secret code. The caregiver gets cash or buys items for the person, but continues to use the card to get more cash or to buy things.

A caregiver has a key to the person's home, or is left unsupervised in the home. The caregiver can rifle through drawers and file cabinets to find checks, credit cards, credit card statements and account numbers. These can be used to charge purchases or to open new accounts.

Caregivers also may go through the mail, looking out for new credit cards they have ordered in their employer's name.

Weeks and even months can pass before victims notice money is missing from their accounts or that unusual charges have been made with their cards.

Walton, the Modesto woman who uses a wheelchair, didn't catch on until weeks after the theft, when her credit card company called to ask about recent charges.

"CapitolOne called and said, 'Where's your card?'" Walton said. "I looked and it wasn't there."

Later, Walton went to her bank to deposit her paycheck. The teller, alarmed by the number of checks Walton supposedly had written, showed her a print-out for $950 in checks made out to businesses that Walton doesn't frequent, such as Sizzler, Foot Locker and a liquor store.

"I was very, very upset," Walton said. "I trusted her."

Trust isn't enough, said Aspasia Christy, coordinator of Modesto's Disability Resource Agency for Independent Living, the agency that has received seven caretaker theft complaints this year.

Keep things like checks, credit cards and Social Security cards in a locked safe, Christy advised. Review checking account and credit card statements carefully.

"Always keep tabs on your accounts," she said.

Mark James, a detective who investigates these cases for the Modesto Police Department, recommends people who hire caregivers have a "second pair of eyes" review their bank and credit card statements. This could be a family member or a trusted friend.

There is no state or federal department that licenses all types of caregivers, so it is often difficult to learn about a caregiver's record. People can request a criminal background check, performed at the Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department, for about $30. People can also call a caregiver's past employers.

Sometimes, people who hire caregivers through an agency assume they don't need to screen the caregivers themselves.

That's not always the case, said Paul Birmingham, a manager with Stanislaus County's In-Home Supportive Services. The county agency provides money for about 4,300 elderly and disabled people to hire caregivers.

Birmingham said his agency gives people the names of caregivers who have undergone training sessions and who have passed local criminal background checks, given by the Center for Senior Employment.

But his office urges people to call a caregiver's past employers. Social workers are available to help.

People hiring caregivers through private agencies should ask if the agency has checked out a caregiver's references, Birmingham said. Also ask if the agency performs criminal background checks on caregivers.

If a theft happens, it's often difficult to prove who did it, especially if several people have been in the home, police say.

For every 10 complaints, Modesto police say, they make two arrests. Penalties range from fines to up to four years in prison, depending on how much is taken.

It's also difficult to report the theft because forms must be filed with several agencies. Walton informed the police, then started calling the customer service numbers on her other credit cards.

She eventually had to hire a notary and fill out forms for the Federal Trade Commission. The entire process took about three months.

Walton cleared up her credit problems, but police have not arrested her former caregiver. They say this is because there were other people in the home around the time the theft occurred.

"She got away with this so blatantly," Walton said. "That shocks me."

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FOR ASSISTANCE
If you have questions about possible caregiver theft, call:
ADULT PROTECTIVE SERVICES -- If the theft occurred in a home.
(800) 336-4316 or 558-2637
STANISLAUS COUNTY OMBUDSMAN -- If the theft occurred in a nursing home or other kind of care facility. 529-3784
DISABILITY RESOURCE AGENCY FOR INDEPENDENT LIVING -- For help restoring credit. This agency also maintains a registry of caregivers. 521-7260
STATE DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE -- To learn how to check the background of caregivers. The cost is about $30 and the check is done at the Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department in Modesto. (916) 227-3822