Erie County District Attorney John Flynn is warning about elder fraud cases after two defendants pleaded guilty Tuesday to defrauding vulnerable people they were supposed to protect.
“We have individuals who are taking care of elderly, taking care of people who are vulnerable, and they are obviously misusing their authority and their position,” Flynn said. “And, obviously, I want the public to know that when I become aware of this, we are going to bring these elderly and vulnerable people justice, and pursue everyone and anyone who is stealing from older people.”
One of the defendants is a former Erie County employee. Tamara Ebo, who was a case worker for the Department of Social Services’ adult protective services until she was fired in November, allegedly stole over $42,000 in Social Security benefits from 14 different clients, most of whom were elderly.
Ebo, 44, falsified documents from 2016 to 2019 so that her clients’ money instead went to her. In one case, she used an older man’s Social Security check to pay for renovations at the Hertel Avenue dance studio she owns, Devastation Dance Company.
“Ms. Ebo was devious enough, quite frankly, to manipulate the vouchers and manipulate the invoices where she not only fooled her managers at adult protective services, but she was also able to fool outside, third party vendors as well,” Flynn said.
Ebfo pleaded guilty to third-degree grand larceny, first-degree scheme to defraud and official misconduct.
The other defendant was a homecare nurse taking care of an adult with cerebral palsy in Clarence. Wendi Jo Oliver, 41, who pleaded guilty to attempted fourth-degree grand larceny, allegedly falsified her timesheets in order to collect over $11,000 from her client’s special needs trust.
“You're allowed to put (money) in a separate trust, as long as that trust is just used for health care care needs,” Flynn said. “This victim had one of these trusts set up, and outside home care nursing fell within the purview of getting paid from this trust. … (Oliver) was falsifying time cards to get paid a paycheck out of this special needs trust.”
It’s estimated older Americans get scammed out of anywhere between $2.9 billion to $36.5 billion every year, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Flynn said it’s important for friends, family and advocates to be the lookout for elder fraud. In Ebo’s case, the fraud was discovered only after a nonprofit agency noticed something off about one of the victim's transactions.
“Obviously you want to dot your i's and cross your t's, and make sure that every voucher is appropriate, every check that's going out of your Social Security account is going out for the right reason and to do what you can,” Flynn said.
The district attorney expects elder fraud cases to only increase this year, given COVID stimulus money. He said the U.S. Attorney’s Office is actively pursuing stimulus fraud of over $50,000, and passing along information about smaller cases to local district attorneys.
“There are state agencies, state unemployment people are looking at cases, and there's federal people looking at them as well,” he said. “And so people are looking at this on all ends of the spectrum, and at some point it’s going to end up on my desk.”
Both Ebo and Oliver are set to be sentenced in April. Ebo faces up to seven years in prison, while Oliver, who paid full restitution to her victim in court Tuesday, faces up to one year.
Ebo was not the only former county employee to plead guilty Tuesday. Nicole Wichlacz, a former clerk typist for Department of Social Services’ Child Protective Services, allegedly divulged county records multiple times last year to a friend who had a case in the county's family court. It is unlawful for an employee to take any action on a CPS case involving a family member or friend.
Wichlacz pleaded guilty to official misconduct and faces up to a year in prison.
Flynn said he doesn’t know what, if any, new safeguards the county has put in place to prevent future cases of official misconduct, but said he hopes his prosecution is a deterrent.
“Hopefully this is spreading through the Rath Building right now and people are saying to themselves, ‘Oh, my gosh, Flynn’s taking this seriously and if any one of us gets caught doing this, they're going to be facing seven years in jail as well.’”