Monday, October 1, 2012

How Easy Someone Can Steal With Power of Attorney

Several recent cases of false imprisonment and theft demonstrate how callously people can take financial advantage of others. 

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This week, authorities found that a St. Louis man named Cliff Crockwell allegedly locked a man in his basement for five years while he cashed the man’s Social Security checks.  The victim suffered a traumatic brain injury and developed alcoholism while recovering, which led him to meet Crockwell, who provided care for alcoholics.  Eventually, the victim’s sister visited him and noticed that the building where he lived had bars on the windows, a steel front door, and backwards locks that prevent people from leaving the building.  She claimed her brother looked like a Holocaust survivor and that the building was a dungeon.   Crockwell claims that he prevented the victim’s departure because he believed he would drink alcohol if he left.  Further, Crockwell stated he permitted the victim to leave initially, but that he would return to the building inebriated.  He admitted that he had no medical evidence to support his claim that the victim must be confined in order to maintain his sobriety. 
The victim has not received any of his Social Security benefits for the last five years.  Crockwell admitted that he got him to sign over his Social Security checks, but did not confirm whether he had power of attorney to act on the victim’s behalf.  Crockwell also admitted that he received Social Security benefits on behalf of other tenants as well.  A Missouri state Senator stated that Crockwell’s actions could be considered false imprisonment. 
Another egregious case of false imprisonment was uncovered in Pennsylvania earlier in September.  Dwayne Young was arrested on charges of kidnapping, aggravated assault, and forgery for allegedly keeping a deaf mute man in his basement for four months while cashing the disabled man’s Social Security checks.  The case resembled another tragic kidnapping that happened in Philadelphia where a convicted killer and three others were found to have locked four mentally handicapped adults in their basement and cashed their Social Security checks.  Horrifyingly, the victims in this case were chained to the boiler and forced to use a bucket as a latrine.  Police found power of attorney forms in the boiler room among other documents related to the victims.
The perpetrators in each case were being paid the victim’s Social Security checks.  The Social Security Administration states that after a careful investigation, it will appoint someone to be a payee of another’s benefits if the beneficiary is not capable of managing her money by herself.  Executing a power of attorney agreement cannot authorize an agent to accept your Social Security benefits on your behalf.  This suggests the SSA believes its vetting process is stricter than an individual’s.  It’s true that you can grant a power of attorney while the principal is not mentally incapacitated, whereas the SSA requires the beneficiary to be mentally incapable of managing his affairs, but these recent cases suggest the SSA could greatly improve its processes for selecting payees and ensuring payees are not taking advantage of the disabled.    

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