Elder Financial Abuse: Warning Signs and Risk Factors
Elder abuse doesn’t always mean physical harm. In its financial form, it’s the exploitation of people to gain access to their property, investments, cash, or real estate. As the recession drags on, some law-enforcement officials and attorneys say they’re seeing an uptick in reports of elder fraud committed by strangers. The scams include identity theft, telemarketing cons, stealing Social Security checks from outdoor mailboxes, and fraud by unscrupulous contractors and professional advisers. But relatives—sometimes those entrusted with the elder person’s welfare—also commit such crimes.
In 2010, the MetLife Mature Market Institute conducted a study to determine the extent and consequences of elder financial abuse.(1) The study found that:
- Women were nearly twice as likely to be victims of elder financial abuse as men. Most were victims between the ages of 80-89, lived alone, and required some level of help with either health care or home maintenance.
- Nearly 60% of perpetrators were males. Perpetrators who were strangers often targeted victims with visible vulnerabilities (limited mobility, displays of confusion, being or living alone, etc.)
What is Financial Abuse?
Elder financial abuse spans a broad spectrum of conduct, including:
- Taking money or property
- Forging an older person’s signature
- Getting an older person to sign a deed, will, or power of attorney through deception, coercion, or undue influence
- Using the older person’s property or possessions without permission
- Receiving payment without delivering agreed upon products or services
- Promising lifelong care in exchange for money or property and not following through on the promise
- Scams (fraudulent or deceptive acts)
- Using the senior’s credit cards for unauthorized purchases
Who Commits Elder Financial Abuse?
Perpetrators may be family members, friends or neighbors; caregivers or helpers, either paid or volunteer; businesses or unscrupulous strangers. Whatever the relationship, individuals who exploit seniors exert undue influence when they are in a position of trust and take advantage of that individual to gain control of their money, property or life itself.
Undue influence is accomplished by abusers in many ways:
- Isolating the senior from (other) family, friends and society in general
- Controlling the senior’s mail, phone calls and visitors
- By threatening the senior that they will lose their house and be placed in a nursing home
- Convincing the senior that no one else cares for them except the abuser
- By threatening the senior with harm, neglect and abandonment
What are the warning signs?
Some of the warning signs or indicators listed below can be explained by other causes or factors and no single indicator can be taken as conclusive proof. Rather, one should look for patterns or clusters of indicators that suggest a problem.
- Unpaid bills, eviction notices, or notices to discontinue utilities
- Withdrawals from bank accounts or transfers between accounts that the older person cannot explain
- Bank statements and canceled checks no longer come to the elder’s home
- New “best friends”
- Legal documents, such as powers of attorney, which the older person didn’t understand at the time he or she signed them
- Unusual activity in the older person’s bank accounts including large, unexplained withdrawals, frequent transfers between accounts, or ATM withdrawals
- Belongings or property are missing
- Suspicious signatures on checks or other documents
- Changes in spending patterns
Protecting Seniors from Financial Abuse
Watch for the above warning signs and be aware of what is going on with your loved one. The best prevention is perhaps the simplest, but it’s hard for many busy people: check in regularly with the older person. “Reducing isolation is the number one thing to do,” says Kathleen Quinn, executive director of the National Adult Protections Services Association. (2)
If hiring a caregiver, use a home care agency wtih W2 employees (not contractors) who are bonded and insured; that conducts a national background check, and has a supervisor visiting the home regularly.
(1) The MetLife Study of Elder Financial Abuse; Metlife Mature Market Institute
(2) “Preventing Financial Elder Abuse” ConsumerReports.org
Additional resources for this article: National Committee for the Prevention of Elder Abuse (www.preventelderabuse.org)