The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

October 27, 2012

Power of attorney isn't a license to steal

Joanne Arbogast
The Daily Item

SHAMOKIN DAM — In August, charges were filed against Elizabeth Strump Petersen, 47, of Northumberland, for allegedly stealing nearly $16,000 from her 83-year-old aunt for whom Petersen had served as a substitute agent with power of attorney.

After assuming control of her aunt’s financial affairs, Petersen allegedly depleted her aunt’s funds within five months, using the money for expenses not associated with or incurred by her aunt.

Having power of attorney is “not a license to steal,” Nelson Brewster told a group of senior citizens attending a Senior Crime Prevention University presentation in Shamokin Dam. He debunked some misconceptions people may have about giving power of attorney and explained how it should not be confused with guardianship.

“You give up no legal rights by giving power of attorney,” he told the crowd. “And you are still in control.”

Brewster, a retired police officer, is a civil investigator with the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General, which brings the Senior Crime Prevention University to communities.

Another misconception is thinking that once you give power of attorney, you are stuck with your decision. “If you think someone is ripping you off, fire them and get someone else. You can change power of attorney,” he said.

Guardianship, on the other hand, is a legal process when rights are taken away from someone deemed incompetent.

If you suspect someone you have given power of attorney to is not properly handling your finances, contact the local Area Agency on Aging for assistance. Although they can’t make arrests, they will investigate the situation, Brewster said.

In the case against Elizabeth Strump Petersen, it was a Columbia-Montour Area Aging Office investigator who reviewed the elderly aunt’s financial affairs and discovered Petersen was allegedly diverting funds from the aunt’s account into her own, including trying to electronically transfer money to pay for her son’s college tuition.

The case is also another disturbing example of what to be aware of when giving someone power of attorney:

“Statistics tell us,” Brewster warned, this kind of abuse of power of attorney “is usually done by family members.”

n For more information on hosting a SCPU program or for a copy of “A Consumer Reference Guide for Seniors: How to Avoid Scams and Fraud,” call (717) 787-9716 or the toll-free senior helpline at (866) 623-2137, email senioruniversity@attorneygeneral.gov or visit www.attorneygeneral.gov.