Millions of older Americans become victims of financial abuse every year. Despite this, financial abuse and exploitation of the elderly is not talked about enough. It’s important for these topics to be discussed, because it can be devastating to seniors and those who love them. Read on to learn what this kind of abuse looks like and how to stop it.
What Is Elder Financial Exploitation?
Elder financial abuse and exploitation happen when people use threats, tricks or lies; take advantage of an elderly person’s disability; or betray their trust to gain access to their money or property.
Abusers target elderly people because they know seniors are more likely to have cognitive problems like dementia and to be socially isolated and in need of company. Seniors may also be unable or unwilling to report abuse or may not realize they are being taken advantage of.
Many cases of elder financial exploitation are committed by strangers, but financial elder abuse by family members or other people the elderly person trusts is common, too.
Typical forms of elder financial abuse include:
- Using the victim’s credit card or checkbook without their permission or after threatening them
- Forging the victim’s signature on financial documents
- Stealing the victim’s property or using it without their permission
- Threatening or tricking the victim into changing their will
- Convincing the victim to name the perpetrator as agent for their power of attorney, giving that person control of the victim’s medical care and finances
- Visiting or calling the victim with the intention of scamming them through schemes such as raising money for a charity that doesn’t exist, falsely telling them they owe money to the IRS, lying to them about work they need done on their home or pretending to be a loved one who needs money immediately
Know the Signs of Elder Financial Abuse
Though any senior can become the victim of elder financial abuse, most victims are women in their 80s who live alone and need some assistance maintaining their health or their homes, according to a study by MetLife.
Dementia, physical or mental disabilities, lack of financial literacy, and loneliness, depression or recent death of a loved one also put seniors at higher risk for elder financial abuse.
According to an article in the New England Journal of Medicine, “perpetrators [of elder abuse] are most likely to be adult children or spouses, and they are more likely to be male, to have a history of past or current substance abuse, to have mental or physical health problems, to have a history of trouble with the police, to be socially isolated, to be unemployed or have financial problems, and to be experiencing major stress.”
So, if your loved one fits the former profile, or any people around them fit the latter profile, you may want to be extra vigilant when looking for signs of financial abuse. Those signs include:
- Unpaid bills that a caregiver is responsible for paying
- A caregiver who gives defensive or implausible answers to basic questions about the elderly person’s finances
- A lifestyle or level of care below what the elderly person can afford
- Missing property
- Forged signatures on the elderly person’s documents
- Associations with people who have serious financial problems or an expensive habit like gambling or illegal drug use, or who have experienced a sudden, unexpected upgrade in lifestyle
- An elder who used to be very informed about their money but who suddenly lacks knowledge about their current financial situation
How Can I Prevent Elder Financial Abuse?
Though elder financial abuse is common, there are ways to prevent it. To lower a loved one’s risk of experiencing it:
- Connect with them. Loneliness is a risk factor for elder financial abuse. If a caring network of family and friends isn’t around, people with bad intentions may fill the void. Try to be present more for your loved ones and encourage others you trust to do the same.
- Be vigilant. Keep an eye on anyone who has suddenly come into or reappeared in an elderly person’s life and quickly gotten very close to them.
- Make a plan early on. While your loved one is still able to control their health and finances, gather the family together. Have a conversation about how your loved one wants those things handled if they become unable to control them in the future. This is a good time to have them make or update a will, write an advanced healthcare directive that states what kind of medical care they do or do not want in various situations and declare who they want serving as an agent for their power of attorney. Assigning more than one agent may prevent someone from acting alone in a way that harms your loved one.
- Talk to them about financial abuse. This can be uncomfortable: Your loved one may feel insulted or may resent that you’re giving them advice. Let them know that you’re talking to them about this because you care about them and because you don’t want to see anyone hurt them. Tell them about common scams and breaches of trust that abusers use. Ask them to call you immediately anytime someone asks them for money.
- Properly vet caregivers. Ask for recommendations from friends or from community institutions you trust, like your faith community or senior center. Ask all potential caregivers to submit to a background check and to provide references.
- Get outside financial help. Encourage your loved one to find and be in regular communication with a trusted financial adviser from outside of their circle of family and friends. This makes it less likely they’ll be taken advantage of. NOTE: In May 2018, the president signed the Senior Safe Act into law. This legislation allows financial advisers to go to the authorities if they suspect a client is being financially abused, without putting the financial adviser at risk of being sued for a violation of privacy.
How Do I Report Elder Financial Abuse?
Though exploitation of the elderly is common, elder financial abuse reporting is not. According to the National Council on Aging, out of the potential 5 million elders abused each year, only 1 in 14 cases of abuse are reported to authorities.
If you have a bad feeling about the way an elderly person is being treated, or you know they’re being taken advantage of – don’t brush it off.
If you feel comfortable talking to the person you suspect of abuse, do so. But it may be best to bring in outside parties to deal with the problem. Call the police or visit the National Center on Elder Abuse for a list of state-specific agencies that can help you.
Knowing how to spot, prevent and report elder financial exploitation can help you ensure that instead of cruelty and deception, your loves ones get the respect and kindness they deserve in old age.