The elderly are often easy targets for scammers, so here's how you can identify the signs that an elder is being financially abused.
Elderly people are some of the most vulnerable members of our society. They can have limited mobility or knowledge of modern technology, so they often require assistance to perform various tasks. That leaves them wide open to being taken advantage of.
“Elder financial abuse is a huge problem,” warned Steve Weisman, lawyer, author, and identity theft expert who writes at Scamicide.com. “Studies have estimated the amount of money lost to elder financial abuse at $3 billion with seniors frequently targeted by scammers.
“The elderly are a perfect target for such criminals because they have wealth accumulated over a lifetime and are perceived as being more trusting and vulnerable to the tactics employed by scam artists, the only criminals we call artists.
“In fact, studies at Cornell and the University of Iowa have found that the parts of our brain that deal with skepticism that protect people from being scammed become less viable as we age.”
Since you likely have an elderly relative or friend, you should familiarize yourself with the specifics of elder abuse, including how to spot it and what to do when you suspect it’s happening. Even if you don’t have an elderly person you care about, you’ll be an elderly person one day, so read on.
What is financial elder abuse?
Many people are aware of “traditional” elder abuse. We won’t go into too much detail about it, but this is the sort of thing you hear happens in nursing homes, where attendants might be physically or emotionally harmful in their interactions with residents. Financial elder abuse can exist as part of or independent of other forms of elder abuse.
“Financial elder abuse is the abusive use of financial control by someone that an older person trusts, eventually resulting in harm,” explained Susanna Williams, a consultant for Hospice of South Louisiana. “This can include a wide range of behaviors such as forging checks, stealing property or possessions from an elderly person, perpetrating cons to get their trust, and using a credit card without their knowledge.”
Modern financial technology offers scammers more avenues than ever. Which is why it’s important for you to familiarize yourself with the signs that financial elder abuse is occurring.
The signs that financial elder abuse is occurring.
If you’re close enough to the relative you’re concerned about, you may have access to their financial accounts and will be able to monitor them closely. But aside from directly monitoring an elder’s accounts for suspicious activity, there are other signs to look out for.
Karen Webber, forensic accountant and founder of Webber CPA, offered some red flags to look out for:
- “Unusual account activity.”
- “Recent account changes such as joint owner or new POA added, beneficiaries changed, or statements forwarded to a new address.”
- “A new relative or friend accompanies the older adult and/or has become overly interested in their finances.”
- “Inconsistent handwriting such as signatures on checks and financial and/or legal documents.”
- “Lack of food in the home or a home in disrepair may indicate that the older adult does not have money to cover basic needs.”
- “Piled up mail such as unpaid bills or new credit card statements.”
It’s important to be aware of who the potential scammers might be, whether they’re anonymous grifters or close relatives.
“The most common form of abuse is financial abuse and it is hard to identify and stop it,” advised Budgets Made Easy founder and Master Financial Coach Ashley Patrick. “A lot of times it is scammers that call and mail the elderly in order for them to send them thousands and thousands of dollars. I had one victim that sent her entire life savings because she thought she was going to win a prize.
“Other forms of abuse come from family members. That can be harder to identify because you have to look for it and be aware. It is so hard because the victim has to be declared incompetent and a lot of times they are not to that point yet. So, they may willingly send their money or give their money away without realizing they are being taken advantage of.”
So you’ve noticed some suspicious activity and you’re concerned it might be elder financial abuse. What can you do?
“A key indicator of financial exploitation is evidence of some other form of abuse, because financial exploitation typically co-occurs with physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, or neglect,” warned Webber. “Whenever financial exploitation or other abuse against an older adult is suspected, call the police. A referral should also be made to the local county Adult Protective Services (APS) agency.
“While the police will look into the criminal aspects of the case, APS can help coordinate various forms of assistance that the older adult might need, as well as take steps necessary to protect the victim’s assets while the case is being investigated.
“Financial professionals should have organizational policies and procedures for reporting suspected financial elder abuse and putting protective measures in place to protect a victim’s assets in accord with applicable regulations.”
Any research you can do into local laws could be a big help.
“In order to stop it, it is important to know your local laws,” suggested Patrick. “Identify who is the one scamming the person and then taking over their finances. It is a long and difficult process but it is so important in order to protect their livelihood.”
Financial elder abuse can be very tragic. We hope this advice will help you weed it out.
Ashley Patrick is a Master Financial Coach and founder of Budgets Made Easy (@budgetsmadeeasy). She started helping people budget and pay off debt after paying off $45,000 in just 17 months while working as a police officer. She now stays at home with her three kids and tries to stay sane in the chaos.
Karen Webber is a forensic accountant, Certified Public Accountant, and Certified Fraud Examiner in Rochester, New York, who has worked on financial exploitation cases for older and vulnerable adults for the last ten years. Karen earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Accounting and a Master of Science degree in Forensic Accounting at the College at Brockport, State University of New York. Before starting her own practice, Karen spent five years in the forensic and litigation services division of a regional certified public accounting firm. Today, she and her staff at Webber CPA, PLLC, serve every enhanced multidisciplinary team (E-MDT) in New York State and New York City by assisting participating law enforcement precincts, civil attorneys, government agencies, and other service organizations with their investigations of financial exploitation against vulnerable adults.
Steve Weisman is a lawyer, college professor at Bentley University and author. He is one of the country’s leading experts in identity theft. His most recent book is “Identity Theft Alert.” He also writes the blog Scamicide.com (@Scamicide) where he provides daily updated information about the latest scams and identity theft schemes.
Susanna Williams is a consultant for Hospice of South Louisiana, a hospice that provides a holistic approach to symptom management and support for elderly patients and their families. Hospice of South Louisiana has been awarded Reader’s Choice Award for Hospice and received a top ranking of 100% compliance by Medicare.
Andrew Tavin is a writer, comedian, and a full-time content manager for OppLoans. He graduated with a BFA in TV Writing from Tisch School of the Arts in New York City, worked as a writer for BrainPOP, and created a branded comedy video series for the National Retail Federation called “Interview Day.” He performs around the country and his writing has also appeared on Collegehumor, Funny or Die, and Sparklife.
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