CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Officials are warning people to be careful before signing a power of attorney. It can be a great tool for managing money, but it can end up handing someone the keys to a person's life savings.
Mecklenburg County Department of Social Services tracks exploitation of the elderly. Officials said in a recent 20-month period, seniors were bilked out of $665,000. DSS officials said those are just the cases it knows about.
Mary, who asked to protect her identity, is a 72-year-old woman who needed help managing her finances. Mary knew things about powers of attorney. Years ago, her aunt signed a health care one to Mary.
"People that were in the retirement home would say, talk about their power of attorney did this and their power of attorney did that and I thought, "Well, maybe that's a way for me to go," Mary said.
Mary decided to use her real estate agent, Wayne Smith. She said she knew his mother and uncle and went to her church.
"I figured those were good, solid reasons that he would be a good, reliable person," she said.
After several months, Mary found out he was pocketing her money. Prosecutors said at least $175,000. Mary said it was as high as $300,000.
"It was all rather traumatic," she said.
In a similar case, Mint Hill police reported they thought a man used power of attorney to steal tens of thousands of dollars from a senior who may have been suffering from Alzheimer's disease.
Assistant District Attorney Nathan Brooks worked Mary's case and said seniors should hire someone reliable -- like an elder care lawyer -- to write their power of attorney, so it's very specific and doesn't give up too much control.
"Just signing a power of attorney form doesn't give you the protection you need," Brooks said. "You need to make sure that power of attorney is narrowly drawn so that person's duties are very narrow. If you just want them to pay your bills, it needs to be said in there."
Mary used a form North Carolina offers as a guide, but it's very broad. Brooks said it's too broad.
As for the man accused in Mary's case, he pleaded guilty and is serving five months behind bars. It may sound low, but prosecutors and Mary said they didn't want him to be locked away, unable to pay her back.
At last check, he repaid about $72,000.
For more information about preventing financial abuse against the elderly, click here.
To report it in Mecklenburg County, call 704-336-2273.