Karla Sibert was sitting in an Iowa hospital waiting room when she got some shocking news.
"The doctor just said, 'It's okay, it's okay. It's not cancer, we didn't find anything bad,' and I said 'you have no idea what I have just been through.'" It turned out her it wasn't the physical health of her 82-year-old mother Marlene Sibert's that was in trouble.
"I had her cell phone with me...and that's when I intercepted some phone calls," said Sibert. One was from a salesperson with Leading Health Source, a Las Vegas-based nutritional supplements company, wanting to know how her mother was feeling and if her new pills were helping.
Confused at first, Karla Sibert played along, asking how many pills were ordered and how much they cost.
Skeptical about what she was being told, the younger Sibert, who has power of attorney over her parents' finances, whipped out her mother's credit cards and began calling the card companies to check recent activity. Altogether on three cards, she found $44,000 worth of charges from Leading Health Source for boxes and boxes of unopened pills and drops. The products claimed to address a variety of health issues such as dry eyes or memory loss.
Once her mother was out of surgery, Karla Sibert asked her what happened.
"She said there was just about $500 dollars that she OK'd on a credit card," she said. As a result, her mother "didn't remember doing it and doesn't remember it was of that magnitude."
Unfortunately Marlene Sibert's story is not unique. Cases of older Americans being taken advantage of by telemarketers, investment professionals or even members of their own family are a common and growing problem that occurs mostly under the radar, advocates say. One recent study found seniors lose an average of $36.4 billion annually from financial abuse.
"I think cases like this kill people," said Liz Loewy, former head of the Elder Abuse Unit in the Manhattan district attorney's office. She is now general counsel for EverSafe, a company which offers account monitoring services for the elderly.
According to Loewy, many instances go unreported because victims suffer from cognitive impairment and are unaware of what's happening.
"Another reason is victims are embarrassed and don't want to admit [the abuse] to family," she said.
Having power of attorney over her parents' finances helped Karla Sibert get most of the card charges reversed. She also filed a complaint with the Iowa attorney general's office, who opened an investigation into Leading Health Source.
"They came up with this ridiculous defense that the Siberts were distributors...so that's why they were buying so much," said Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller.
A representative for Premier Health told us it was a "sister company" of Leading Health Source, and no one from the company would comment.
However, in a 2014 letter to the Iowa attorney general's office, Leading Health Source claimed it was unaware that Karla Sibert had power of attorney over her parent's finances when her mother purchased the products. If the company had been notified, "Mrs. Sibert would have been put on our list of customers not to call," the company said.
Eventually, Leading Health Source returned the remainder of Marlene Sibert's money. An Iowa judge also barred the company from doing business in the state.
Karla Sibert hopes elderly consumers, their children and caregivers will learn from her experience.
"You need to be your parents' advocate," she said. "There's just no question in my mind that people need to stay involved with their parents."
On the Money airs on CNBC Saturdays at 5:30 am ET, or check listings for air times in local markets.
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