In February, 2004 both of Diane Benson’s elderly parents became seriously ill. Her mother spent almost four weeks in the Intensive Care Unit of Shady Grove Adventist Hospital. Her father was in intensive care for five weeks at Montgomery General.
BOTH WERE able to return home to their shared apartment in Leisure World, the retirement community in Wheaton, but Benson’s father was using a wheelchair and both parents were frail and in need of assistance while recuperating. Her father hired two caregivers.
“In addition to taking care of them, they also took care of stealing my father's Social Security number, committing identity theft, and … [charging] thousands upon thousands of dollars on my parents’ various credit cards,” said Benson, who lives in Potomac and teaches at Winston Churchill High School.
Benson’s father only became aware of the thefts when Citibank called to alert him that a woman named Josselin Aguilera had tried to open an account using his personal information.
On June 1, the Montgomery County Police began investigating Aguilera, 32, and her mother Maria Dolores Ortiz, 52, who live together in Olney. Three weeks later, detectives executed a search warrant on their house and discovered jewelry, purses, cameras, and credit cards stolen from Benson’s parents and other victims, according to district court charging documents. They also found a denial letter from Citibank addressed to Aguilera and a check in the name of Benson’s father, made out for more than $2,000, with a forged signature.
Benson said the police assembled an “airtight” case and that the State’s Attorney’s Office prosecuted it commendably. Both women pleaded guilty to multiple counts of felony theft. In a Sept. 26 sentencing hearing, District Judge Louis Harrington gave Ortiz a sentence of 18 months in jail — all suspended — and 12 months of supervised probation. He gave Aguilera 11 months jail time — all suspended — and 11 months of probation. He waived some of their court costs.
“WHAT HAPPENED in that courtroom was a mockery of justice,” Benson said.
In a letter to Harrington, she said, “Preying on the elderly/infirm is one of the most reprehensible crimes that can be committed,” and called Harrington’s sentence negligent and disrespectful.
Benson’s mother was not insured for the losses. Her father died one week before the sentencing, which Benson attributed partly to the stress of the ordeal.
Those outcomes are irreversible, and Benson said her main concern now is to prevent other seniors from becoming victims of similar schemes. She has written county and state legislators to call for better consumer protections, stricter laws, and stiffer penalties for identity theft.
“What happened unfortunately is happening to a lot of elderly people,” said Del. Susan Lee (D-16), who has championed identity theft legislation in the House of Delegates and chairs a task force studying the problem.
The task force is examining all sides of the identity theft problem, Lee said. Corporations can help by studying their credit-issuing practices, auditing suspicious transactions, and keeping customer information secure. Consumers need to be better educated about Internet scams, credit card safety, and more traditional forms of identity theft.
“With identity thefts, people can steal someone’s identity high-tech or the old fashioned, low-tech way,” said Eric Friedman, chief of the county’s Division of Consumer Affairs. One con artist may be collecting financial information over the Internet, while another is collecting it from your trash can — if you don’t shred bank statements and other financial records — he said.
Identity theft and other scams are more prevalent than ever, Friedman said, but so is consumer consciousness, he said. Under a law passed last summer, the consumer affairs division, currently part of the Department of Housing and Community Affairs, will become a full-fledged county department beginning Jan. 26, the Department of Consumer Protection. Friedman promised an investigation into Benson’s case.
THAT INVESTIGATION may uncover something that remains unclear in Benson’s parents’ case: how and where Ortiz and Aguilera were marketing their services as caretakers. Benson’s father could not remember before he died where he had met the women.
Del. Brian Feldman (D-15) said that lawmakers need to examine how to better regulate workers like Ortiz and Aguilera, who offer their services informally.
“There’s gaps in … the regulatory scheme of things in terms of people doing this kind of work for seniors,” he said. “There are regulations on the books—certifications, licenses. … But you have a whole group of people that operate outside that framework who can do a lot of things — even be convicted of crimes — but apparently don’t find it all that difficult to simply go somewhere else and find work again.”
The newly formed Health and Government Operations Committee has also shown interest in regulating caregivers. Del. Marilyn Goldwater (D-16), who represents Potomac, is vice-chair of the committee and Del. Adrienne Mandel (D-19), whose district includes Leisure World, is a member.
Lee said that she planned to contact Benson about testifying on future identity theft bills.
“The only thing we have ever asked this judge is that we not allow these women to do to someone else’s parents what they did to my parents,” Benson said. “If I can just stop just a fraction of that from happening in that community, I’ll be happy.”