Sweetheart scams targeting seniors wreck finances — and devastate families | #datingscams | #lovescams

Into her eighth decade, Colleen Grey remained a glamorous figure, reminiscent of Zsa Zsa Gabor. “If there was an outfit, there were shoes that matched and earrings that matched,” said her eldest granddaughter, Brenda Shafer-Pellinen of Carlton, Minn. “Nobody ever saw her without her makeup on.”

A voracious reader and arts enthusiast, Grey cared for her husband, who had Alzheimer’s, in their Bloomington home. To blow off steam, Grey would visit the local casino, where she was befriended by a gambler two decades her junior, named Michael Mann.

When Grey’s husband’s died in 2002, she was emotionally distraught. The next time she bumped into Mann, he initiated what her family suspected was a parasitic relationship in the guise of a romance.

It took a decade for the evidence to pile up. After moving in, Mann isolated Grey from her family and stole more than $100,000 of her money. He pawned her wedding ring and sold the tires off her Buick, Shafer-Pellinen said. When the family finally got into Grey’s home, which she eventually lost due to years of unpaid taxes, it was missing appliances, infested with vermin and mold. “It looked like somebody had picked the place over for parts,” Shafer-Pellinen said.

The family learned that Grey had leukemia, among other medical conditions that had gone untreated during her time with Mann. That lack of health care hastened Grey’s death, about a year after she reunited with her family.

Prior to meeting Mann, Grey wasn’t someone you’d consider vulnerable; she lived independently and maintained strong ties with many relatives nearby. “If this can happen to a family like that, this can happen to anyone,” Shafer-Pellinen said.

The Minnesota Department of Human Services receives more than 50,000 reports of suspected abuse, neglect or financial exploitation of vulnerable adults each year. Among incidents of theft, so-called “sweetheart scams” are especially damaging. Mann’s sowing mistrust into Grey’s established relationships destroyed her family, Shafer-Pellinen said. “There was so much other wreckage beside those bank accounts.”

Professionals who investigate sweetheart scams say the pool of older adult victims is only getting larger, due to increasing lifespans and cases of dementia, and baby boomers’ high divorce rate. “You don’t need a gun anymore to steal money,” explained Minneapolis elder law attorney Robert McLeod. “All you need is a power of attorney and a twinkle in your eye.”

On the flip side, local attorneys say they also encounter plenty of “helicopter children,” concerned that a cognitively capable parent is spending their presumed inheritance on a new significant other. McLeod described the perspective of such parents he’s represented: “They say, ‘My kid can go to hell, I know what I’m doing. I’m 80 years old. How many years have I got left?’ “

Scammers’ playbook

The pandemic has only exacerbated the disconnection that makes older adults more vulnerable to sweetheart scams. “The isolation and loneliness can be an access point for somebody who is a perpetrator,” said Amanda Vickstrom, executive director of the nonprofit Minnesota Elder Justice Center.

Strangers connect with their victims in public places, via phone or computer. Those initiating romantic relationships use dating sites, but also games such as Words With Friends, or, in the case of at least one especially egregious perpetrator, an online Alzheimer’s support group.

Many of the “sweetheart” cases investigated by Eileen Waterman, a senior social worker with Anoka County, involve older Minnesotans sending money or gift cards to suitors they’ve never met. One man lost $20,000 to three different virtual women. Another woman paid a “boyfriend” she’d never met $150,000, and then faced eviction for nonpayment of rent.

But cases where the crook cohabitates with the victim tend to be more complex and can put the victim’s health and well-being at greater risk. McLeod fields calls of this type on an almost weekly basis, he said, describing the common pattern:

An adult child is concerned about a parent whose capacity is fading, yet would not be considered incapacitated (not eligible for a guardianship or conservatorship). The new boyfriend or girlfriend is at least 10 to 20 years younger, possesses substantially less money, and knows how to flatter. “They don’t come off as fire breathing out of their nostrils,” McLeod said. “They don’t get close to these people by being evil, mean or abusive, but by being charming, wonderful people.”

Once the couple move in together, adult children have trouble getting ahold of their parent — the new partner screens their calls and manages their schedule. Marriage often comes quickly, along with the new partner being added to bank accounts and obtaining power of attorney, giving them the ability to make financial decisions.

If an adult child tries to intervene, the new partner protests that the child is interfering with the couple’s happiness. The child may be written out of the will, further complicating the dynamic. “People are ashamed to call because they know how it looks: ‘Oh, all you care about is the money’ ” McLeod said.

Or greedy kids?

In some cases, all the adult children do care about is the money said Jill Sauber, a Minneapolis attorney specializing in elder law. Sauber has encountered plenty of adult children who prioritize protecting their parents’ assets, which they hope to inherit, over their parents’ well-being.

In such cases, Sauber reminds the adult children that, if their parent has capacity, they are free to associate with whomever they want, and share what they have with a companion. “They can do with their assets whatever they choose,” Sauber said. “It’s their decision. People can make bad financial decisions if they have capacity,” she added.

Model Anna Nicole Smith’s marriage to an 89-year-old oil tycoon is an extreme example that McLeod cites as a perhaps mutually exploitative coupling that makes the point: In some cases, the relationship is “none of our damn business.”

While bankers, lawyers, extended family and friends will report suspected financial exploitation to law enforcement or Adult Protective Services, it’s often an adult child who first sounds the alarm. That’s why Rachell Henning, an elder law attorney in Maple Grove, says she frequently plays the role of family counselor.

When a widowed parent enters a new relationship, adult children have concerns about everything from loyalty to family heirlooms, Henning said. But just because the kids don’t like the new partner, that doesn’t necessarily mean the parent isn’t aware of what they’re doing. “Sometimes those emotions can control us, so we think we’ve got to protect them and save the day,” she said. “But sometimes it’s just what they want. And if they have capacity, we have to respect those wishes,” she said.

Determining capacity

When the older adult doesn’t consider themselves a victim, the line between their being maltreated, or simply executing their right to make choices that others don’t like, comes down to capacity.

Adult Protective Services focuses on victims considered vulnerable adults, meaning they have difficulty caring for themselves, or protecting themselves from maltreatment, without assistance. Adults residing in a hospital, nursing home, or similar facility, or receiving home care or day services, for example, would be considered vulnerable.

Professionals who investigate “sweetheart scams” recommend that adult children with concerns about a parent start by spending time with them, one-on-one, to assess their mental capabilities.

When adult children in blended families haven’t been very involved with their parent, they may not realize how much their capability has declined, explained Sarah Sicheneder, a Richfield-based elder law attorney. They might interpret the new partner’s not letting Mom or Dad drive, or holding onto the checkbook, as controlling, when it’s actually an attempt to keep them from getting lost or scammed. “The kids think they’re protecting Dad from this evil stepmother, who is caregiving day in and day out, trying to keep him safe,” Henning said.

Sicheneder suggests adult children start a conversation — not a confrontation — including the new partner, noting any concerns they’ve observed and offering to help. (Concerns should focus on the parent’s health and well-being; children’s attempts to break up a parent’s relationship when no maltreatment has occurred are “heartbreaking and hard to justify,” Sicheneder said.) “Adult children really have to take a step back and assess the situation as analytically as possible before moving ahead on emotion,” she said.

Vickerman, of the Elder Justice Center, sums up the balancing act that victim advocates face. “We 100% want to stop financial exploitation and support victims because it’s horrendous what they have experienced,” she said. “At the same time, older adults who do not identify as being victims and have the ability to make their own decisions get to make decisions that other people think are bad.”

Those who suspect an older adult is being financially exploited, or otherwise abused, can call the Elder Justice Center’s free, confidential helpline (651-440-9312) to ask questions anonymously. Reporting concerns to the police and the Minnesota Adult Abuse Reporting Center (1-844-880-1574) would be the next step.

Shame is a huge barrier to people asking for help, especially as someone ages. “Because what older adults tell us they fear most is losing their ability to make those decisions and losing capacity,” Vickerman said.

In Colleen Grey’s case, when family initially alerted police to Mann’s gambling away her money, there was little they could do because Grey was not considered vulnerable. It was only after a financial adviser and lawyer whom Grey and Mann met with both reported concerns, and Grey showed signs of decline, that legal action was taken. In 2016, Mann was convicted of felony theft, and sentenced to 180 days in the workhouse.

Shafer-Pellinen said the family shares Grey’s story to bring attention to this devastating crime and encourage others to seek help. “She didn’t do anything wrong,” she said. “This was done to her.”


  • Be aware of how scammers work. A person expressing romantic interest who pressures or guilts a senior into decisions, is overly concerned with financial affairs or is seeking money, housing or access to prescription medications is cause for concern.
  • Older adults should have up-to-date health care directives, powers of attorney and wills — and share their decisions with their children. It’s far better to engage in hard conversations before experiencing cognitive decline.
  • Most older adults in Minnesota live in their own homes, so it’s easy to be isolated or rely on one person for caregiving and emotional relationship. More people checking in with services and social connection offers better protection.
  • Keep the lines of communication with loved ones open. If anyone with whom you’ve had a long-established relationship expresses concern about a new partner, it’s worth listening.

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