maroon wave

$2.6 Million Federal Grant to Enhance One-of-a-Kind SU Partnership to Investigate and Curb Elder Financial and High-Tech Fraud

SU Fraud students with Worcester County officials
David Weber and SU Fraud Program students join members of the Worcester County Sheriff's Office and Ocean Pines Police Department

SALISBURY, MD---In 2017, 92-year-old William Gautier received a notification from his bank that a check drawn on a long-standing, little-used account could not be cashed due to insufficient funds. A teller noticed suspicious activity on another account, as well.

That notification led to the discovery that some $80,000 had been removed from the combined accounts, little by little, without his knowledge. Further investigation revealed fraudulent credit card applications also had been made in his name. Though two suspects were sought for questioning, criminal justice officials in Anne Arundel County, MD, eventually dropped the case when it was determined the victim was too mentally frail to testify on his own behalf.

In this case, most of the funds were recovered through insurance. However, many victims of elder fraud are not so lucky, according to David P. Weber, clinical assistant professor of accounting in Salisbury University’s Franklin P. Perdue School of Business.

He is hoping a recent $2.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will help change those odds for some local senior citizens with the help of SU students. The funding will allow the University to expand its Fraud and Forensic Accounting Certificate Program with an eye toward providing new opportunities for students to assist Worcester County law enforcement officials in the fight against elder financial and high-tech fraud.

“To our knowledge, this is the only fraud experiential learning program of its kind in the nation,” said Weber, who was appointed last year as a special investigator by Kris Heiser, state’s attorney for Worcester County, to further the pilot program.

“We are excited to expand our partnership with SU’s Certificate Program in Fraud and Forensic Accounting to continue our efforts to prevent fraud and victimization of vulnerable adults in Worcester County,” said Heiser. “This federal grant funding will allow us to focus even more dedicated resources on issues of education and awareness, as well as provide assistance to Worcester County’s law enforcement on complex financial fraud investigations.”

“This is an excellent opportunity to further our partnership with our state’s attorneys office to help identify and combat criminal activity against our vulnerable adult population,” said Matt Crisafulli, sheriff of Worcester County. “This team approach with SU gives our community more education and awareness pertaining to criminal conduct. The vulnerable adults in our community become safer with this partnership.”  

Students Provide Assistance

Currently, 20 students in SU’s Fraud Program intern with the Office of the State’s Attorney for Worcester County, providing outreach and prevention services to elder victims and those at risk for financial fraud, and working to assist Worcester County Sheriff’s Office detectives on related criminal investigations.

“After law enforcement concludes its investigations, our student interns assist prosecutors with preparing for trial, including creating visual displays condensing voluminous financial records and other pieces of evidence into easy-to-understand exhibits for juries to consider, and even testify in court as needed,” said Heiser. “It’s my hope that students find the experience rewarding and that after graduation some will continue to serve and protect the most vulnerable in our society by choosing careers in law enforcement.”

While the partnership provides law enforcement with needed resources, students have experienced some roadblocks, including a lack of information technology resources to securely house personally identifiable information (bank records, etc.) and a lack of transportation to cover the nearly 700 miles the county incorporates.

Weber expects this grant to solve those issues with the purchase of new, secure laptops, phones and software, and a dedicated vehicle for the program. Funding also will be allotted to provide students with more specialized training in data analytics, cryptocurrency investigations, and cybersecurity and computer forensics.

“It removes a lot of hoops,” said senior accounting and information systems major, and fraud and forensic accounting minor Garrett Zawodniak of Ellicott City, MD. “It’s going to streamline the process and make everything easier,” including allowing students to securely share information and resources with a goal of enhancing the program’s effectiveness.

In addition, the grant will fund seven new positions, including three seasoned criminal investigators and three victim-witness case workers, who will partner with SU’s investigative interns to provide social outreach and crime prevention resources for victims and potential victims of elder fraud, and a new administrative assistant position to assist Weber with case management.

Scholarship Funding

Perhaps most importantly, the grant provides new scholarship funding for student interns in the program. Currently, through SU’s ShoreCorps AmeriCorps program, students earn some $1,400 during their one-year internship with the Office of the State’s Attorney, in exchange for at least 300 hours of service. The grant is expected to add an additional $4,500 scholarship for each intern.

“Many students continue to work second jobs off campus to pay for tuition, books, food, housing and transportation,” said Weber. “Many also take out student loans, which reduces the likelihood of SU Fraud Program graduates pursuing public service after graduation due to the lower available salaries in the public sector. This scholarship will allow students to devote greater time and attention to the fraud program and their pending criminal investigations rather than working at another job.”

Looking toward the next few years, Weber also hopes the opportunities this grant provides will encourage more students to consider careers in fraud examination and public service.

A new partnership with SU’s Glenda Chatham and Robert G. Clarke Honors College will provide honors credit for students participating in a financial fraud or business ethics course designed to complement the experiential learning component of the Fraud Program, starting in Fall 2023. A new freshman experience course also is planned to debut in Fall 2024. Grant funding is provided to develop these courses, to test whether doing so will increase students’ interest in public service.

“It is our expectation that a significant number of Clarke Honors students would subsequently enroll in the fraud experiential program as upper-class students, especially if financial incentives are provided,” Weber said.

He hopes that expected increase could help turn SU into a national leader in curbing a nationwide issue with recruitment and turnover of professional investigators tasked with investigating elder financial crimes.

“The skill set needed is that of a meta-discipline, with knowledge of varying subjects such as accounting; financial crime; the legal system; and medical, social and behavioral issues involving older persons,” he said. “We want to increase the pipeline of qualified financial and high-tech crime investigators for the future.”

Preying on the Elderly

That future, Weber added, could look especially lucrative for criminals preying on the elderly as technology continues to evolve. Worcester County’s status as a prominent retirement destination, coupled with a high unemployment rate, may make senior citizens there particularly vulnerable for fraud.

“While Worcester County law enforcement does have the ability to forensically capture cell phones or computers for evidence preservation in court, there is no current state or local law enforcement resource on the Eastern Shore to assist elder victims with removal of malware to prevent future victimization, short of wiping the device,” he said. “Elder victims are frequently reluctant to wipe their devices because they contain treasured photos, documents or information for which there is no backup saved.

“Recent U.S. Census data estimates that most households within Worcester County have computers and broadband internet access, but anecdotal experience with elder financial and high-tech fraud referrals through the SU Fraud Program indicates that the elder victims do not have security software, ability to back up their devices or the knowledge of how to avoid becoming victimized on the internet.”

Because of this, Worcester County law enforcement officials have responded to reports of cyber fraud at the same addresses multiple times in recent years, Weber said. With continuing outreach and education to elderly computer users from SU students, he foresees those repeated calls declining, potentially resulting in operational savings for the county.

“As a result of this one-of-a-kind program, SU students have the benefit of gaining real-world investigative experience and forensic accounting skills, but they are also performing a service in our community by showing senior citizens how to protect themselves from future victimization,” said Heiser.

“This program isn’t just ‘Who stole your money?’ noted Zawodniak. “It’s also ‘How can we help you prevent that in the future?’”

Paradoxically, Weber also hopes the overall number of cyber fraud reports increases.

“Statistically, only about 5 percent of elder financial fraud is reported,” he said. “While we want to reduce repeat victimization, part of our job is also to encourage this vulnerable population to make those calls to the police if something like this happens to them. We can’t investigate it if we don’t know it’s happening.”

Fraud Investigators of Tomorrow

Weber also hopes outreach from SU’s interns will give seniors the education they need to avoid those situations while also building the fraud investigation workforce of tomorrow. All of last year’s program graduates had jobs lined up before taking their final SU class, and nearly half were hired into federal or local public service, he noted.

Though the program is offered through the Perdue School, enrollment is open to non-business-related majors.

“It’s important to have different perspectives on cases,” said Kaylynn Boswell, a senior management major from Brandywine, MD. “It’s not just about business.”

“It’s not just for accounting majors,” Zawodniak agreed, adding that a sociology or social work major, for example, could be instrumental in the senior education part of the program.

While the grant is expected to have a direct impact on cases in Worcester County, the experience students gain will benefit areas beyond Worcester County, including adjacent Somerset (MD) and Accomack (VA) counties, Weber said.

“Fraud investigation and enforcement is really a localized thing, so it’s different in every place,” he said. “But the challenges are the same everywhere: There are never enough resources. With this grant, we hope to level the playing field and not just in Worcester County.”

The first case involving SU student investigative work, in Virginia, resulted in a guilty plea earlier this semester. A second, in Caroline County, MD, is scheduled for trial in November. For students involved behind the scenes in these cases, the court decisions can be as exciting as they are gratifying.

“We don’t kick down doors,” said Madison Friz, a senior information systems major and fraud and forensic accounting minor from Sykesville, MD. “We get to see all of our hard work pay off in the courtroom.”

While most students in the program appreciate that the experience they receive likely will help them land a job after graduation (Zawodniak already has accepted an offer with a top-10 accounting firm, while Boswell and Friz are weighing their options in the public and private sectors), fraud examination and forensic accounting means more to them than a potential paycheck.

“Professor Weber does a great job of prioritizing service and helping others,” said Boswell. “Being part of something bigger than just getting a degree is rewarding in its own right.”

For more information about SU’s Fraud Program, visit the program webpage.

Learn more about opportunities to Make Tomorrow Yours at the SU website.