Police say they've laid their first-ever charge in the case of someone using power of attorney authority to clean out a relative's bank account in Windsor, Ont.
Police visited the home to check on an elderly woman's well being after a personal service worker noticed "inconsistencies" in the home, said Const. Julie Hebert, who works in the Windsor Police force's special victims unit. The worker also felt that the family member, who was also living in the home, was "very abusive" psychologically, she said.
"Then we learned of the huge financial abuse that had been going on," said Hebert. "There's been an arrest and a charge."
Police say power of attorney theft has been in the criminal code for 10 years, but it's extremely difficult to prove.
Power of attorney gives someone the authority to make decisions on a person's medical care or financial affairs in the case of a person who can't make decisions for themselves.
POA often gives one or more individuals access to financial records and bank accounts. Hebert said that kind of access can lead to abuse.
"You'll often find people who are of a limited income all of a sudden buying themselves a new car, a new boat, going to the casino," Hebert said.
Often she said, that means the bank account is drained when it comes time to pay the medical bills.
POA thefts underreported
Hebert's colleague, Const. Sheri Meismer, said its difficult for police to know how prevalent POA thefts have become because the victims are often isolated, and many have health issues that affect cognitive abilities and are ill equipped to make a complaint.
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"It's very difficult. I would say it's vastly underreported," said Meismer.
Meismer said seniors are often embarrassed that their family members have taken advantage of them and don't report theft. Other family members let incidents go because the person involved was "set to inherit anyway", she said.
And due to the aging population, POA crimes are only going to increase, Meismer said.
The challenge with investigating POA theft is the immediacy issue — by the time the crime is reported, it needs to be dealt with right away because of the deteriorating health of the victim and the need to preserve evidence of the crime, said Hebert.
To prevent the fraud, Hebert suggests having more than one person hold power of attorney. This allows for more than one person to keep an eye on the bank accounts, Meismer said. Those with joint power of attorney should not be in the same household, she added.
More people making care decisions for a loved one is usually better, said Meismer.