- A series of recent cases illustrate the way conmen target the vulnerable, rendering them victims of fraud schemes involving cash, kind, and worse.
In April of 2023, Rupa Pal* lost her father, a retired Indian Air Force veteran based in Pune. An IIT engineer, he had decided to serve the nation by joining the Indian Air Force and had participated in the 1971 India-Pakistan War. In August 2022, he suffered a stroke and a subsequent fall which had left him mentally impaired.
At that time, Pal, an NRI based in California, quit her job and stayed with her father in India for several months to take care of him and get his treatment done. Eventually, as family duties called her back to the U.S., Pal returned, after setting up 24×7 nursing care at home for her father. Also on the scene at this time, running her father’s day-to-day errands was their “trusted” driver who had been serving the family for over five years.
When their father passed away in April of 2023, much to the shock of Pal and her brother, his driver produced a ‘will,’ allegedly a fake one, executed in Marathi — a language that their father was completely unfamiliar with — claiming all their property. This seemed highly suspicious to the family as the document was signed less than a month from the date their father suffered a stroke. Their father, before his mental impairment, was known to be very methodical with all his documents and had already registered a will in favor of his children. “At the same time, we also realized that the driver had taken possession of my father’s new car, siphoned off Rs.40 lakhs from his bank accounts by accessing OTPs on his phone, and had also stolen all our family jewelry. He is currently trying to transfer our flat in his name on the basis of this ‘will’,” Pal says.
U.S.-based Rina Mitra* suddenly received a midnight call from Shivaprasad, the long-term caregiver of their partially-impaired brother residing in Nasik, Maharashtra. He asked for a large sum of money to be transferred, failing which her brother would be abandoned and turned out into the streets. The family in the U.S. was left scrambling to make arrangements for him within hours at short notice.
The abuse of Rina’s brother began during the pandemic when Rina or her siblings couldn’t visit their brother. “When we engaged the caretaker, my brother was in good physical health,” says Rina. Gradually, Shivaprasad began asking for money from the siblings residing abroad — using various excuses, from the need for medicines to food for their brother — none of which was used for the benefit of their brother.
What followed was far more sinister. “He would lock up my brother in a room, not allow him to talk to us, citing health issues. When we insisted on consulting a doctor, he brought a fake doctor to the phone and also sent us falsified medical bills,” Rina alleges.
Soon the family was able to arrange for another doctor to check on their brother. What they learned this time was simply horrifying. “My brother was suffering from extreme malnourishment, had literally become like a skeleton, and was kept in very unhygienic conditions, suffering from various bedsores and sepsis,” she said. Sadly her brother passed away soon after moving to the senior care home.
Sunita Desai* has another sinister story to tell where her parents were victimized by someone who not only posed as a well-wisher to the elderly couple but who also tried to murder her mother.
Sunita’s father, an academic and author, wished to get his books published and promoted. At this time, a con man, Anil Wagle* struck up a friendship with the elderly gentleman, and offered assistance. Gradually he won the good faith of her elderly parents by frequenting their home almost daily and helping them with various transactions, including banking and finance.
During the pandemic as Sunita and her sister, both living abroad, were unable to visit their parents, Wagle began to ask for small sums of money citing various reasons. Soon he persuaded their mother to dilute fixed deposits, and withdraw the money, and keep the cash — about Rs. 70 Lakhs (equivalent to $100,000 at that time) — at home. She was also persuaded to withdraw all the money from the couple’s pension funds. Needless to say, all attempts by their children to persuade their parents otherwise fell on deaf ears. Such was the grip this con man had on the elderly couple.
At this time, Sunita’s father suffered a fall and was bedridden. Wagle took this opportunity to install two of his people at the couple’s home as 24-hr caretakers. At the height of COVID-19, he gave a toxic herbal concoction (kadha) to Sunita’s mother to drink and convinced her it would help with COVID-19 symptoms. Within minutes she was violently sick. He arranged to have her transported to a hospital where he had bribed the staff to admit her as a Covid patient into the Covid ward. “This was his first attempt to kill her,” says Sunita. Mercifully her mother survived. Still, her parents refused to believe he was a con man.
The second attempt came soon after. This time Wagle convinced Sunita’s mother to remove all the jewelry from the bank locker and keep it at home. Somehow, sensing something untoward, she gave the jewelry to the neighbors for safekeeping. Soon she realized that all the cash was missing from home. As she challenged him, Wagle rushed to strangle her. Hearing the cries and shouts, the vigilant neighbors rushed to the couple’s aid. Wagle managed to run away and was absconding for a while, but eventually was caught and arrested.
Desai blames the rise in such cases of elderly fraud and abuse on the culture of “extreme corruption” in India. “In India, those who perpetrate such frauds often align with people in power and consequently go scot-free.”
Cases of physical and financial abuse of elders are rampant in India, and the elderly parents and relatives of the NRI community seem to be especially vulnerable and soft targets for such potentially dangerous and life-threatening frauds. “The culprits take advantage of the lack of consequences as court cases drag on for years and it is very hard for NRIs like us to fly up and down multiple times for moving court dates,” says Rupa. As Nitin Desai,*Sunita’s husband puts it, “usually the NRI children are themselves well settled and have no material need of their parents’ assets back home, and instead of pursuing the cases choose to give up. This is exactly what the financial fraud perpetrators take advantage of.”
Getting justice in such cases is extremely difficult. As Sunita puts it, “We were able to make some headway only by bringing pressure upon the law enforcement authorities.”
As Rupa puts it, “There is a palpable undercurrent of resentment towards NRIs; it did not matter that my father was an Air Force officer who had served in the wars. There also seems to be an element of organized crime in such operations as is evident from the way my father’s driver was able to carry off a very intelligent white-collar crime, leveraging various legal loopholes.”
By and large, all victims this correspondent spoke to alleged apathy by law enforcement in pursuing the cases. In the case of Rina, it took several attempts for the family to even get a complaint filed. “The police seem to be unsympathetic to the plight of NRIs. We were asked ‘if you cared so much for your brother, why didn’t you take him with you to the U.S.?’,” she says. “The simple fact that my brother was an Indian citizen with the right to safety and justice in his own country did not matter.”
In the last two decades, recognizing the rise in crimes against the elderly, the government of India has taken some legal steps to address the problem by enacting the Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Act , which aims to protect the rights of the elderly. However, such laws are often rendered ineffective due to a lack of proper implementation by law enforcement, and limited awareness among the people.
As Dr. Reema Nadig, Co-founder and COO, KITES Senior Care, wrote in this recent article in the Deccan Chronicle, “It is imperative for the government to allocate adequate resources to create awareness campaigns, improve reporting mechanisms, and ensure the prosecution of perpetrators. It is the responsibility of individuals, communities, and the government to take a stand against elder abuse and ensure the well-being and dignity of India’s elderly population.”
What steps can NRIs take to protect their parents against such criminal elements?
Pune Advocate, Sachin Khandagale suggests the following safety tips for NRI families:
- Stay in constant or at least frequent visual contact via social media.
- Visit as often as possible.
- Premises could be brought under CCTV coverage and remotely monitored.
- Keep a close watch on their medical symptoms and take preemptive action in case of emergency through responsible sources.
- Ensure that large funds are not accessible to outsiders or strangers.
- Do a regular scrutiny of banking transactions and other valuable securities to know any discrepancies.
- Ensure that they have direct access to only limited funds and jewelry at any given point in time.
- Ensure that valuables or securities are not at home or in their direct custody.
- Have multiple joint accounts for multiple purposes and transfer limited money to accounts being handled by elderly people.
- Set up multi-level authentication for large or repetitive withdrawals and alerts for suspicious transactions in banks.
- Have a social community/app where such issues could be discussed and registered.
- Create access or a channel to reach out to local police machinery or medical assistance immediately.
- Improve relations with local neighbors who could feed you with material information and updates.
- Create or appoint an agency that will provide caretakers or drivers after thorough background checks and on a rotational basis.
- Ensuring that employees, caretakers, or drivers have no access to personal information, cards, or pins.
*Some names have been changed on request to protect the identities of the victims and their families. Additional reading and sources: https://www.deccanchronicle.com/lifestyle/health-and-wellbeing/140623/elder-abuse-awareness-day-2023.html. Also, read Rupa Pal’s case in The Times of India
(Top image, Adobe Stock Photo)
Nandita Bose is a journalist, writer, and editor. In the past, she has worked at magazines like India Today and Society, among others. She has been Executive Editor at Schoolnet India Ltd., an education infrastructure company. Since moving to the United States, she has been a freelance communications professional.