Financial fraud is the fastest growing form of elder abuse. It’s also one of the most difficult to combat because many victims are too confused, afraid or embarrassed to report it. Broadly defined, financial elder abuse is when someone illegally or improperly uses a vulnerable senior's money or other property for his or her own personal gain. Sadly, most elder abuse is committed by trusted family members or caregivers, but it’s also committed by new “friends” and even strangers.
The good news is that most states have laws which make elder financial abuse a crime, and provide punishment for scammers and help for victims.
Profiles of Elder Abuse Victims & Scammers
A recent study found elders are often targeted by fraudsters because, generally, senior citizens expect people to be honest, are less likely to take action when they’re scammed and are less knowledgeable about their rights – especially in an increasingly complex financial world. Seniors who are isolated, lonely, physically or mentally disabled or unfamiliar with handling their finances are especially easy targets. Scam artists may be strangers, such as telemarketers or home repair professionals, or they may be trusted relatives or friends, such as caregivers, doctors or accountants.
Common Financial Scams
Financial scams against older people include a broad range of misconduct -- from the outright theft of money or property, to getting paid for products or services that are inferior or don’t exist at all.
The U.S. Department of Justice reports dishonest telemarketers take in about $40 billion each year through schemes involving investment and credit card fraud, lottery scams and identity theft. Other ploys include romantically wooing older people to gain access to bank accounts and property deeds, and intimidating or lying to gain Power of Attorney or other legal documentation.
Some signs that a senior citizen is a target of financial abuse include:
- Unusual or large withdrawals or transfers from bank accounts, or large credit card charges the older person can't explain
- Checks that are missing or have suspicious signatures
- A new, close “friend” who has easy access to the elder’s money, home and other property
- Newly executed documents, such as a will or power of attorney, which the elder doesn't seem to understand
- Changes in account beneficiaries or authorized signers
- A large number of unpaid bills
- Entry forms and prizes from contests, and payments made for "free" vacations or other merchandise
- Untreated physical problems, dramatic changes in mood or disposition, sudden social isolation or other evidence of substandard care
Report Suspected Abuse
Help protect senior citizens by knowing what steps to take, and what resources are available, to stop elder abuse. If you suspect elder abuse:
- Call law enforcement if an elder is in immediate physical danger seek help from the police or a local prosecutor’s office.
- Get help from a senior services group. You can check local listings for advocacy groups such as Eldercare Locator, which can help identify local programs and services which help prevent financial elder abuse.
- Contact Adult Protective Services. This government-affiliated agency investigates reported elder financial abuse and offers assistance to victims. To find a specific state APS office, visit the National Center on Elder Abuse website and click on the “Resources” tab.
- Notify the victim’s credit union or bank ASAP. Most states require financial institutions to report suspected elder financial abuse. Employees at credit unions and banks are often in a good position to catch suspicious activity, such as large cash withdrawals, or use of an ATM card by an elder who is housebound.
Studies report that financial abuse can have as significant an impact for an elder person as a violent crime or physical abuse. One of the most terrifying scenarios for many people is the possibility of financial ruin, and losing assets accumulated over a lifetime can be devastating.
Learn to recognize the signs and know the process for stopping elder financial fraud to ensure peace of mind for an elderly loved one, or your future self.