Older Black Americans are at higher risk for financial exploitation

Advocates and experts say there are a number of reasons Black Americans are targeted more for financial scams, including higher rates of Alzheimer’s disease, disparities in wealth and financial literacy, and lack of police response.

A colorful mural with faces of Black Americans and words including

Provided by the Chicago Sun-Times

A mural at a former Walmart store in Chicago’s predominantly Black middle class Chatham neighborhood by artist Joe Nelson. Chatham is among the Chicago neighborhoods with the highest per capita number of police reports of elder financial exploitation.

This story is part of a series about elder financial exploitation in Illinois. You can read more stories in the series here.

By the time the alleged scamster was done with 78-year-old Tiny Kent last year, the retired secretary had written checks totaling $141,900 for home repairs that were barely started.

Kent was sitting on her front porch in the Chatham neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side when a man hopped from his pickup truck and pointed out repairs he could make at little cost.

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“He put up a door, charged her thousands, put up a shingle, charged her thousands. Tiny didn’t know any better — she was in the early onset of dementia,” said her cousin, Donnell Wilburn. “She was just writing checks, writing checks.”

One of the factors making Kent a likely target was her race.

Over the last two decades, police reports document nearly 1,000 victims of elder fraud living in predominantly Black neighborhoods throughout Chicago — nearly half of all cases reported in that time.

Headshot of a Black female professor

Donna Benton is an associate research professor of gerontology at the University of Southern California.

“I am not surprised that middle-income African Americans would be a target population,” said Donna Benton, an associate research professor of gerontology at the University of Southern California. She said the problem is vastly underreported.

“What you’re looking at is probably the tip of the iceberg,” Benton said.

There are myriad reasons Black Americans are targeted disproportionately, she said. They experience higher rates of Alzheimer’s disease than white Americans and are less likely to get an early diagnosis, research studies show. Studies suggest gaps in household income and wealth contribute to racial and ethnic disparities in rates of financial literacy.

And in Chicago’s Black communities, victims of elder financial exploitation for years have been rebuffed by police, said the Rev. Robin Hood, a West Side community activist who works with victims of mortgage fraud.

“Police don’t want to deal with it,” Hood said. “That’s the history in our community.”

Kent’s case ended in an arrest only because a diligent bank teller noticed a suspicious man walk the confused older woman into her Bank of America branch to withdraw more cash.

Angelo Miller, 39, was arrested and charged with felony home repair fraud of a victim older than age 60. He has pleaded not guilty. His wife, who said she handles his affairs, told Injustice Watch he is “100% innocent” but declined to comment further. His case is pending.

Cases of elder financial exploitation are spreading through every precinct of Chicago, devastating wealthy seniors on the Gold Coast and struggling immigrants in historic Chinatown, records show. But of the 2,263 Chicago police reports about the crime since 2001, the highest number was concentrated in South Side Black neighborhoods, including Chatham, an Injustice Watch investigation found.

An older Black man in a black hat with a salt-and-pepper goatee speaks in front of a group of people holding signs.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Rev. Robin Hood, a West Side community organizer who works with victims of mortgage fraud, speaks during a Bronzeville press conference in 2021.

The top 10 community areas by crime rate for this offense were on the South Side, and eight of them were more than 90% Black, this analysis of Chicago police and U.S. census data shows.

By contrast, Chicago police reports for elder financial exploitation were scarce in communities that are less than 10% Black.

Ohio State University Senior Research Scientist Kenneth Steinman reported similar racial patterns in a study published last year on three Ohio counties where the rate of Adult Protective Services reports was about twice as high for Black older adults compared to white older adults.

But Steinman cautioned that local samples like those in his study and Injustice Watch’s reporting were too small to support sweeping interpretations about the role of race in elder financial exploitation.

“One possible explanation for disparities could be that if police, health aides, and other professionals are already interacting with Black residents disproportionately, then they might have more opportunities to observe suspected mistreatment,” Steinman said.

He said he hopes to conduct a larger study using data collected by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “Detailed analyses of APS administrative data could help us learn how this or other explanations account for disparities across different communities,” Steinman said.

Injustice Watch separately found the rates of Chicago police reports of elder financial exploitation to police were lowest in communities with substantial immigrant populations.

That preliminary analysis is mirrored in two academic studies on elder financial exploitation in immigrant communities.

At Rush University, researcher Dr. XinQi Dong gathered native-language interviews of more than 3,000 Chicago-area seniors to document the prevalence of financial exploitation of older Chinese American adults, showing what he calls an underreported epidemic.

And University of Minnesota Assistant Professor Marti DeLiema found low reporting rates in a 2012 study of all forms of elder abuse among immigrant Latinos in Los Angeles. DeLiema said official statistics may be suppressed by “limited English proficiency, economic insecurity, neighborhood seclusion, a tradition of resolving conflicts within the family, and mistrust of authorities.”

Illinois APS manager Brian Pastor said his division recognized racial disparities in elder financial exploitation cases and earmarked $750,000 in federal Covid-19 pandemic relief funds to increase referrals in 13 communities of color across the state.

“I will say — and this goes for the entire Department on Aging — we have a huge focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion right now,” Pastor said. “We’ve been working with some advocacy groups to ensure that a new brochure that we’re creating is culturally competent.”

The 2,263 Chicago police reports centered on an area once called the largest contiguous Black middle class on Earth.

Police last year investigated four other reports of elderly financial exploitation within three miles of Kent’s home, with the alleged crimes taking place at residences and in banks, records show. But police made an arrest in only one 2022 case citywide — hers.

Kent, who worked for the Veterans Administration until she retired, lived without children or close family nearby.

Kent’s cousin Wilburn said he has watched con artists trolling South Side neighborhoods.

“They’re targeting the elderly. I’ve witnessed the scams going on,” Wilburn said.

Kent initially was placed under the care of the Office of the Cook County Public Guardian, but the guardian tracked down Wilburn, who now has oversight of her finances and health care.

“This scam that happened with Tiny, I have never seen such an atrocity, taking advantage of the elderly like that,” Wilburn said.