Paul Borik, 91, a retired Chicago Park District gardener, enjoys his plants at his North Suburban senior facility after he lost the bulk of his life savings to a series of fraud schemes. Credit: Sebastián Hidalgo for Injustice Watch

This story was originally published by Injustice Watch, a Chicago-based nonprofit newsroom that examines issues of equity and justice in the court system. Subscribe to Injustice Watch’s newsletter here.

This is the first story in a series about elder financial exploitation in Illinois. Part two will be published Friday.

CHICAGO — For much of his long life, Paul Borik kept himself busy in the service of others.

As a young soldier in the aftermath of World War II, he helped rebuild France. Then he returned to Chicago, where he dedicated his time and money to his older brother whose head was pierced by a metal fragment in the war. During long workdays, he tended to towering palms and flowers as a city horticulturist at the Garfield Park Conservatory.

To help his family, he sacrificed his dream of opening an evergreen nursery in Michigan. Instead, he stayed in the same Northwest Side home, where he grew up, never marrying, watching over his aging parents and disabled brother until their deaths left him alone.

During a visit in 2012, when Borik was 80 years old, a state social found a portable heater beside his easy chair amid thigh-deep piles of food cartons and trash, according to records reviewed by Injustice Watch. The sink sloped with dirty dishes. Green leaves sprouted from small pots on a living room windowsill, the only remaining vestige of a once-orderly life and career.

In an internal report, a social worker later described his house as “unlivable” and its lonely inhabitant as “a magnet for people running a con game.”

He needed help.

But for the next five years, records show, state officials filed report after report and did little to intervene as Borik was swindled out of more than $340,000, the bulk of his life savings.

The safety net designed to protect thousands of older Illinoisians like Borik collapsed, with state officials justifying their inaction by saying it is every citizen’s right to waive off help.

READ MORE: Older Black Americans Are At Higher Risk For Financial Exploitation

Dozens of cases like Borik’s examined by Injustice Watch during a four-month investigation reveal a failed system to protect older adults from financial exploitation, even as a “silver tsunami” of aging baby boomers are increasingly living alone without the support of family nearby.

Last year alone, Illinois seniors were swindled out of a record $75.9 million, up from $5 million in 2014, according to FBI reports. Experts say those figures are a vast undercount.

Yet the numbers of arrests and prosecutions for elder financial abuse are falling. Holes in banking regulations, loose state watchdog laws, and cost-cutting ripple through almost every level of Illinois government.

Illinois ranks 49th among states in the number of suspicious banking transactions per capita reported against older adults by financial institutions, according to an Injustice Watch analysis of federal data. Illinois is also among only six states without its own force of investigators to look into exploitation cases, saving money by contracting with about 40 local social service agencies to do that work.

Caseworkers often are confused about their authority and their mission, records and interviews show.

The Illinois Department on Aging’s top Adult Protective Services official mischaracterized his agency’s responsibilities in an interview, saying APS is barred by state law from investigating frauds by financial professionals, criminals, or strangers, such as those who victimized Borik.

“We don’t do fraud,” said Brian Pastor, who was named manager of Illinois APS in 2021.

Officials later walked back Pastor’s interpretation of the law in an email exchange with Injustice Watch. But they then got lawmakers to amend the statute to match Pastor’s restrictive definition, according to records and an aide to one of the bill’s sponsors.

“None of the systems meant to protect elders are working effectively,” said Chicago lawyer Paige Fox, president-elect of the Illinois chapter of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys. “Seniors are easy money.”

Pastor called Illinois’ plummeting numbers of verified cases a “fluctuation,” and he said his office cannot intervene when people decline help, regardless of their age or infirmity.

In Chicago, elder financial exploitation is especially prevalent in predominantly Black neighborhoods, records show. Experts cite a variety of factors, including a lack of police response in those neighborhoods.

“Historically, they have turned people away,” said Rev. Robin Hood, a West Side community activist who works with victims of mortgage fraud.

Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker declined an interview request.

In a written statement, his spokesman said, “The Adult Protective Services program works around the clock to investigate this abuse, keep seniors safe, and ensure law enforcement can hold bad actors accountable when appropriate. … These provider agencies are experts in their communities and local dynamics.”

Paul Borik shows a visitor his love for his main hobby, caring for his plants in his one-room apartment as a ward of the state. Credit: Sebastián Hidalgo for Injustice Watch

‘A Pattern Of Sorts’ 

Predators first targeted Borik in 2012.

A 27-year-old woman named Pebbles Miller approached him, then 80 years old, as he gassed up his car 2 miles from his home, records show.

She seemed friendly. She said she was an interior designer in the neighborhood shopping for light fixtures. She invited him to coffee. As a flirtation developed over weeks, Miller told her new friend she had cancer and could not afford treatment.

Over the next five years, she and a loose network of accomplices fleeced the increasingly confused Borik through four separate cons, home repair frauds, and sweetheart scams, according to an analysis of court cases.

He lost the house his family owned for more than seven decades, the bulk of his retirement savings, and his liberty.

Now age 91 and living in a nursing home as a ward of the state, Borik struggled in interviews to recount what happened.

“They seem to find me very easily,” he said. “You wonder if it wasn’t a pattern of sorts.”

Officials at the $1 billion-per-year Illinois Department on Aging and its APS program, established by state law a decade ago as the frontline agency to protect older and disabled adults, filed detailed reports each time Borik was fleeced.

In fact, Borik first triggered APS involvement when he reached out to one of its contracted investigative agencies, Catholic Charities, asking for help paying Miller’s medical bills.

At first, the system seemed to work as it should.

Miller was convicted of felony theft. She spent 20 months in state prison. But only a fraction of the $98,000 Borik gave her was recovered, court records show.

And the swindlers kept coming.

After another woman befriended Borik at a grocery store and eventually made off with $162,455 in 2015, a Catholic Charities caseworker called the same Chicago police detective who had handled the first case.

“He was not interested in getting involved this time because Borik obviously did not learn a lesson,” according to state APS reports.

In 2013, when state officials were investigating Borik’s first case, it was one of 6,744 reports of elder financial exploitation handled by APS. By last year, that number had risen to 8,410.

Pastor defended his program’s record and said state-contracted investigators face a moral choice when the protection of an older adult could come at the cost of that person’s liberty, privacy, and free will — their fundamental right to live as they want, even if they make calamitous financial choices.

“It’s always about asking them what they feel is appropriate, asking them what they feel comfortable with. We always ask for consent to do things,” Pastor said. “That’s the primary piece. That’s all we always have to go off of.”

“Oftentimes, that might mean the client refuses to do an investigation on their family member or on someone they care about,” Pastor said. “That’s their choice, and we have to respect that.”

Preserving the liberty of older adults is a priority for every layer of government, but APS is not doing that effectively, said Cook County Public Guardian Charles Golbert.

“At some point, Adult Protective Services has to step in and protect,” he said.

He runs the government agency of last resort in such cases. His office can ask a probate court judge to take over the finances of people who have lost the ability to care for themselves and who have no family to step in. The public guardian currently handles the estates of more than 700 disabled adults — including Borik.

“You want to talk about taking liberty away?” Golbert said. “When you take away somebody’s life savings, you are taking away options and choices and liberty for them.”

He said such lost savings might have kept the older person in their own home with support or allowed them to move to a four-star nursing home instead of a “substandard facility.”

“That takes money,” Golbert said.

“Caring for those who seek assistance in their time of need is central to our mission,” a spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Catholic Charities wrote in an email response. “We will continue to strive to meet those needs with care and compassion.”

Charles Golbert, the Cook County Public Guardian, said more should be done to protect older adults suffering from dementia before it is necessary for them to become a ward of the state under his care. Credit: Sebastián Hidalgo for Injustice Watch

Other States Do More

“Every time you hear about one of these cases, you will see chinks in the armor where things should have been done differently,” said Diane Slezak, CEO of AgeOptions, one of 13 Area Administrations on Aging that help APS investigate financial abuse of older adults.

“It’s a systems problem,” Slezak said. “Trying to close some of these loopholes is critical.”

Illinois is among a half-dozen states where investigations of abuse of older adults are contracted  to social service agencies, according to records and an interview with Bill Benson, national policy adviser at the National Adult Protective Services Association, which represents state and local APS administrators and workers.

In most states, reports of elder financial exploitation are handled by government employees.  Arizona’s in-house staff includes forensic accountants and investigators with law enforcement backgrounds.

The Illinois contractors — mostly nonprofit social service agencies — are paid hourly rates to investigate and verify the financial abuse complaints from bank officials, relatives, landlords, and victims.

Of 8,410 reports of financial exploitation last year, the state-contracted caseworkers verified evidence of abuse in just 462, about 5.5%, down from about 19% of cases a decade ago.

This plunge in APS-verified cases helps explain the ongoing decline in arrests and prosecutions for elder financial abuse in Chicago and Cook County.

Records show APS referred only 40 cases last year to law enforcement statewide — fewer than 1% of the reports it got.

APS would not say how many cases were referred to the Chicago Police Department.

But Chicago police reports on elder financial exploitation since 2001 show the number of arrests dropping steadily.

Officials with CPD and Mayor Brandon Johnson’s administration did not respond to requests for comment.

According to data from the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, prosecutors are filing fewer cases and getting guilty verdicts against fewer defendants than a decade ago.

On his agency’s website, Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul says one of his office’s most important responsibilities is protecting older citizens from financial exploitation and “taking legal action against those who prey on older residents.”

But asked for a list of recent legal actions or even statistical data about them, the office said it did not track cases specifically against seniors.

Adult protection experts said Illinois lacks APS investigators with the financial skills to safeguard vulnerable residents.

The state-contracted social workers “are overloaded and undertrained. They may not have enough time, and their caseloads overwhelm them,” said Dr. XinQi Dong, a health epidemiologist and geriatrician whose staff at Rush University interviewed more than 3,000 Chicagoans for a 2016 study on the underreporting of elder financial abuse in immigrant communities. Dong also has advised the Illinois Department on Aging and lawmakers.

John K. Holton, who directed the state Department on Aging from 2011 to 2015, when Illinois’ current Adult Protective Services Act was written, said the system to contract out investigations was designed to empower existing local senior services organizations — but also to contain costs.

“It was easier to get legislation putting in place Adult Protective Services with a delivery mechanism that didn’t add to the state payroll and increase the pension liabilities of state employees versus subcontractors being responsible for the salaries and benefits,” Holton said.

Illinois ranks near the bottom of states in the per-capita number of “suspicious activity reports” about elder financial abuse filed with the U.S. Department of the Treasury, government data shows.

Illinois is not among the 39 states to supply case-level information to the National Adult Maltreatment Reporting System, a federal data repository designed to spot abuse trends. It is not among the 26 states where financial institutions must notify state authorities when the accounts of older or disabled people show unusual activity. And it is not among the 34 states that mandate reporting of the cases to the state securities regulator, as well as the APS program.

In May, after a decade of efforts by elder justice advocates, the Illinois General Assembly passed a bill to mandate reporting for one category of professionals: investment advisers.

Declining Enforcement

The situation in Illinois is emblematic of a national crisis. The reported amount lost to financial exploitation of older adults rose nationwide to $3.1 billion last year — a ninefold increase from $342.5 million in 2017, according to FBI data. Financial exploitation is the most common form of elder abuse in the United States, said a publication by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Department of the Treasury.

The largest number of known abusers are relatives who have easy access to the victim’s account information, government records and research studies show.

But the largest dollar amounts are lost to financial professionals and experienced criminals, like the ones who exploited Borik.

“While the largest number of cases reported involved family, friends, and caregivers, the aggregate dollar amounts lost through commercial elder abuse was the highest,” a 2011 MetLife study reported.

The confidence scams, such as those that targeted Borik — typically run by criminals who pose as home repairmen or sweethearts — took 4,661 victims older than age 60 last year nationwide, up from 583 in 2017, a sevenfold increase, FBI data shows.

There also are tech-savvy scamsters who use high-pressure telephone and internet solicitations — including voice-cloning software to mimic grandchildren.

The nationwide rise in elder financial exploitation is driven in large part by demographics. The United States has a growing subset of older adults with no relatives living close by and no immediate support network, according to census data and research studies.

In 2018, about 40% of Illinoisans age 60 or older lived alone, and the figure is expected to grow as the number of older adults rises.

‘Of his own free will’

Borik said his fascination with plants began in childhood, when he discovered snapdragons spilling over a neighbor’s fence. In the 1930s, he delivered flowers to Chicago hospitals by streetcar or on foot and then, as a teenager, worked at local nurseries.

He got a degree in horticulture from the University of Illinois. But events pushed him into a new primary role — physically helping and financially supporting his aging parents and brother John Borik Jr., disabled in WWII.

“I tried to help in what ways I could. I tried to take care of my family and Johnny,” Borik said.

“Paul is such a good man with such a giant heart that I can see where it would be possible for people to take advantage of him,” said Borik’s cousin Jo Otiepka.

Borik’s memories dissolve when asked about the scams that plunged him into government care. This account is based on APS and court records.

Those who targeted Borik came from a loose network of at least 40 people convicted together for felony crimes against seniors or who lived at the same addresses as they executed elderly cons in Illinois and elsewhere, according to a review of more than 100 Cook County cases.

In what’s listed as Case A, for which Miller served prison time for felony theft, state-contracted APS investigators visited Borik’s house and immediately reported the matter to police.

“Worker went around to backyard, which was so overgrown with plant and tree branches that worker could not walk in it,” a Catholic Charities caseworker reported to APS.

A year and half later — in June 2013 — Catholic Charities closed its file on Borik, saying in its final report he “does not believe he will ever see any of his money again, but he will get along.”

MORE: How We Reported On Elder Financial Exploitation

In January 2014, Borik was taken to Swedish Hospital for a leg infection and diagnosed there with dementia. Doctors recommended a nursing home because of his inability to manage daily living. But Borik opted to stay in his house.

In early 2015, a 42-year-old appeared at a nearby grocery store Borik frequented, the public guardian said in court pleadings. She said she needed surgery, records show.

Between March and August of that year, records show Borik made 22 payments to the woman totaling $162,455 from various accounts.

“The same thing is happening again,” a Catholic Charities caseworker wrote in an internal APS report. “Client is a hoarder, and the house is unlivable.”

But Catholic Charities closed Case B on Christmas Eve 2015, citing Borik’s refusal of services.

What’s referred to as Case C began in summer 2016, when Borik called Catholic Charities after being taken for $39,200 by a home repair scamster who promised to lay concrete in front of Borik’s home on North Lowell Avenue. If he didn’t get the job, the man told Borik, he would be deported and likely killed.

Borik made three cash payments, then “the alleged abuser vanished,” an APS report said.

Borik told Catholic Charities he went to the police, but they would not take a report because he could not name this new abuser. The nonprofit closed Case C on July 20, 2016, noting Borik didn’t know the name of the abuser, “and client gave money of his own free will.”

Case D was opened a few days later, when a 23-year-old woman struck up a conversation with Borik at a nearby Tony’s Finer Foods. Borik ended up buying her a $12,000 Ford Fusion and authorized $75,000 in bank withdrawals that allegedly went to her and family members, records show.

No criminal charges were filed against her or anyone else in cases B through D.

Today, in his nursing home room, Borik keeps a reference book on plants, using prayer guides as bookmarks.

“In the Army, you’re drafted, you’re there, it’s maybe not what you want,” Borik said. “It’s not a perfect life by any means. But I try to do what’s right.”

Injustice Watch reporter Carlos Ballesteros, Syracuse University digital journalism Assistant Professor Alex Richards, and Northwestern University journalism student Mrinali Dhembla contributed to this story.