Fraud, Scams, & Dementia

Hook Law News | Apr 22, 2019 | Letha Sgritta McDowell

A recent study from Rush University analyzed whether decreased awareness to scams was an early indicator of dementia.  The study included more than 900 seniors in their 70s and 80s and their ability to detect scams and fraud. Researchers then examined whether there was a link between susceptibility/awareness of scams and fraud to Alzheimer’s disease or other cognitive impairment. The seniors studied had no obvious signs of dementia or impairment at the outset.  Of those studied, more than 400 later were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease or cognitive impairment.

Science has determined that before symptoms of cognitive impairment become obvious, there are changes to the brain which seem to impact executive function.  Many have wondered if an impaired executive function (judgment and reasoning) leave a person open to scams and fraud, especially with the prevalence of Elder Abuse.  The study from Rush University appears to be the first to study a link between the two. Participants in the study who were later diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease or cognitive impairment demonstrated a higher likelihood of being susceptible to scams or fraud prior to the diagnosis.

It is important to note that the study is not conclusive, and some people who were not diagnosed with dementia were unable to detect scams, and some with cognitive impairment were not victims.  Instead, the study demonstrated an increased possibility that someone unable to detect fraud or a scam may have an increased likelihood of later being diagnosed with a cognitive impairment. The study is both good and bad. Elder abuse is underreported in many cases due to concern by the older adult that he or she will be perceived as being impaired. However, many caregivers want to protect their older adult loved ones and want to prevent them from being victimized. Also, getting an early diagnosis and care for changing cognition may be beneficial in the long term with regard to the elder’s later functioning.

If you are concerned about being the victim of a scam or are concerned about a loved one falling victim, there are some resources available to assist. The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (“FINRA”) has created a risk meter for individuals to determine their risk factors for investment fraud.  The questions range from whether you live alone to have you considered buying stocks in tech or start-up companies or which sell for less than $5 a share to have you attended an investment seminar with a free meal? Answers to these questions lead to a score on a scale from low to high along with a description of what makes an individual more likely to fall victim to scams.  Interestingly, age is not a factor on FINRA’s risk meter, but whether you live alone is something to be considered.

FINRA has also created a test to determine if you’ve been scammed and asks questions about where you learned about the activity and what sort of guarantees were provided. The results of the “scam meter” show red flags warning of scams and why they are red flags. In addition, FINRA provides additional resources about avoiding fraud and a hotline to help answer questions about investments and investment opportunities and to file complaints if they have been victimized.

Again, a lower than average ability to detect a scam or fraud is not a guarantee of a later diagnosis of dementia.  Instead, it can be an early warning sign which allows the individual and their loved ones to be vigilant and prepared.  The study from Rush University is also a good reminder of the prevalence of elder abuse, ways that seniors can protect themselves, and options for families and friends to keep loved ones safe from predators.

Ask Kit Kat: Canine Hero

Hook Law Center: Kit Kat, what can you tell us about the dog who became a hero saving his family?

Kit Kat: Well, this is truly a remarkable story. Zero, as the family named him after a ghost dog in Tim Burton’s “The Night Before Christmas,” proved himself to be a loyal and faithful family member. The Martinez family found Zero, a Great Pyrenees, on a Texas highway when he was only a month old. He was in terrible shape, and a veterinarian the family consulted recommended that he be put down. The family resisted, and they’re glad they did—he saved their lives by giving his own. Even before the incident in which he saved their lives, they had begun calling him—Zero the Hero—because of his attentive, calm personality.

Here’s what happened. Zero, by this time, was almost 3 years old. On March 10, 2019 the family was celebrating their daughter’s 12th birthday with an outdoor cookout. There were more than a dozen children at the party. Then, a family friend pulled up in the driveway, and Laura Martinez had an uneasy feeling. Just the day before, she had confronted the young man, Javian Castaneda, about his possibly having broken into her house and having stolen cash and jewelry. An argument ensued, and Castaneda started shoving Laura and hitting her in the face. When one of Laura’s sons joined in the melee, Castaneda pulled out a gun. No one in the family was expecting that at all—Castaneda was one of the son’s friends and had even spent overnights at their house. He fired 9 times. The first shot hit the garage door. Then, Zero was hit, but Zero still managed to lunge at Castaneda. Another shot landed on one of Laura’s son’s foot. One hit Laura in the leg. Another hit Zero’s ear. Zero lunged again. The final shot hit Zero in the stomach. After all this, Castaneda fled the scene. He was arrested a few days later, and he is in jail with a $90,000 bond.

Unfortunately, Zero had to be put down. He was paralyzed, and such a large dog could not live like that. Zero earned his name that day. He truly was a hero. Laura said, “I can honestly tell you there’s no way we would be here without Zero. The reason all our wounds are below the waist is because every time Zero jumped… it kept (Castaneda) from being able to aim.” (Reis Thebault, “A family rescued a dog from certain death. Years later, he died saving their lives in a shooting.” The Washington Post, (Animals section), March 26, 2019)

Letha Sgritta McDowell

Attorney, Shareholder, CELA
757-399-7506 | 252-722-2890
[email protected]

Letha Sgritta McDowell is a Shareholder of Hook Law practicing in the areas of estate planning, elder law, special needs planning, estate and trust administration, asset protection planning, long-term care planning, personal injury settlement consulting, guardianships & conservatorships, and tax law. Ms. McDowell’s clients range from high-net-worth individuals with over $75 million in net worth to families with limited assets.

Ms. McDowell is a past President of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and was named as a Fellow of the prestigious American College of Trusts and Estates Council (“ACTEC”) in 2020. She is certified as an elder law attorney by the National Elder Law Foundation (“CELA”) and Board Certified as a specialist in Elder Law by the North Carolina State Bar Board of Legal Specialization. Furthermore, McDowell is accredited to prepare and prosecute claims with the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Ms. McDowell is currently the chair of NAELA’s strategic planning committee, a member of the Board of Directors for the North Carolina Chapter of NAELA, and a member of the Board of Directors for the Purdue Center for Cancer Research. She is the former Chair of the North Carolina State Bar’s Elder Law Specialization Committee and is the former Editor-in-Chief of “Gray Matters”, the newsletter for the Elder Law Section of the North Carolina Bar Association. She is a consultant for InterActive Legal and has worked on several law and technology initiatives including IBM’s Watson project. Along with her experience practicing as an attorney, she has dedicated much of her time writing for national publications including, but not limited to: Wolters Kluwer,, the NAELA Journal, Trust & Estates Magazine and many more.

Practice Areas

  • Elder Law
  • Estate & Trust Administration
  • Estate Planning
  • Asset Protection Planning
  • Long-Term Care Planning
  • Special Needs Planning
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