Joseph Anthony Florendo Mele. Photo: KCOY
Another case of alleged elder financial abuse made the headlines in California this week. This time a Ventura insurance agent was arrested by the Santa Barbara Police Department on charges of stealing nearly one million dollars from a 93-year-old woman. Joseph Anthony Florendo Mele, age 30, was acting as the woman's insurance agent when he is said to have offered her assistance in managing her finances. Yet instead of helping his client, authorities say, Mele misappropriated her funds for his own purposes, including travel, entertainment, and gambling.
Mele's case is instructive in catching elder financial abuse early. Over the course of 2013 and 2014, he is suspected of diverting $800,000 from his elderly victim. In October 2014, however, bank tellers noticed something was amiss with the victim's account activity and filed a report with county adult protective services, who brought in local law enforcement. Santa Barbara County Police Sgt. Riley Harwood states that Mele told his client he would be investing her funds, but instead used her blank checks to substantially fatten his own pocketbook. By February of this year, officers had obtained a warrant for Mele's arrest, and after months of searching, he finally agreed to turn himself in at the Santa Barbara County Courthouse on June 3rd.
When analyzing stories of elder financial abuse, one key lesson becomes clear: the value of a second opinion. The quicker a wrongdoer is exposed and brought to justice, the better, but a built-in system of "checks and balances" can effectively prevent exploitation from occurring in the first place. Whenever possible, an elderly person should have family members, financial professionals, and an attorney available to review accounts, transfers, and expenditures. This shared responsibility encourages fair play and quicker detection of bad actors, as well as lessening the risk of isolation, a typical operating method of elder abusers.
In the case of Mele's alleged fraud, police say he was able to convince the victim he was making investments on her behalf. Had someone else been checking her records regularly and demanded a full accounting from Mele, the suspicious activity would have been detected much sooner. Active communication and shared responsibility are a great way to stop elder abuse - so speak with your elderly loved ones about putting together a simple, effective system of oversight to keep them financially safe.