Preventing Financial Abuse of Elders

One of the issues that many elder Americans face is the possibility of having the money and property they’ve worked their whole lives to build taken from them as a result of fraud and other forms of financial exploitation. One study produced by MetLife found that elder Americans lost 2.9 billion–that’s billion, with a “b”–dollars to financial exploitation in 2010 alone. These stolen funds are difficult to recover, and can leave elders unable to be self-sufficient. If the exploitation was done by a family member–and it often is–the damage to the family may well be permanent.

Obviously, the blame for this goes to the people committing the abuse. However, elder Americans should do everything they can do be a “hard target” for those who would try to take advantage of them, and their loved ones should help by watching for warning signs.

Who is most likely to exploit elders?

Most often, the person committing the abuse isn’t necessarily some telemarketing or e-mail scammer (although that does happen), but is usually someone that the elder already knows and trusts: caregivers, family members, friends and neighbors, financial professionals, attorneys (good grief), and medical professionals.

Sadly, that same level of trust also tends to make it difficult to report elder abuse. Sometimes, an elder–even one that knows he or she is being victimized–will avoid reporting the abuse for fear that the reporting will cause trouble.

What are the warning signs?

Financial abuse can take a number of forms, but there are some warning signs to look for:

  • Is the elder’s mail being redirected or intercepted? Often, people removing funds from an elder’s account keep bank statements out of the hands of the elder to conceal the theft.
  • Are accounts that were solely in the elder’s name being reregistered? One of the dangers of joint tenancy is that when you add someone as a joint tenant to an account, they have just as much ownership over the property as the original owner. There are many reasons to be careful about putting accounts in joint tenancy, and this is one of them.
  • Are bills going unpaid? If bills that were normally being paid are suddenly going delinquent, or if the elder is getting collection phone calls, it’s possible that the funds to pay those bills has been taken.
  • Does the elder’s care line up with the elder’s resources? If an elder that should be financially comfortable is living in bad conditions, there may be a problem.
  • Has the elder executed new estate planning documents, particularly a power of attorney? Powers of attorney are useful documents, but they can be misused. When I work with clients, I look for the possibility that a client may be under the coercion or undue influence of a caregiver or family member for precisely this reason.
  • Does the elder have a new caregiver or love interest? I wouldn’t recommend treating these people like criminals–they may well have good intentions–but until you get comfortable with them: trust, but verify. Additionally, are those people unusually interested in the elder’s finances?
  • Are valuables missing? It’s possible they could be misplaced, but if they cannot be found, it’s possible they have been stolen.
  • Are there transactions the elder cannot remember or explain? This can get tricky when an elder suffers from memory difficulties, but the elder should understand where their money is going as much as they can.

How can elders protect themselves from financial exploitation?

There are some steps that elders can take to help prevent and deter this sort of abuse:

  • Maintain strong social ties. One of the things that sometimes makes elders more vulnerable is that they can become isolated. Avoid that as much as possible; having more people around you will limit the opportunity for one person to take advantage of you.
  • Take control of financial transactions. Don’t leave all your financial matters to someone else. You should understand the transactions you enter, and why you’re entering them. If you don’t understand a transaction, don’t do it!
  • Get second opinions. A financial advisor, attorney, insurance agent, or other professional is probably going to give you solid advice, but if there’s a lot of money on the line, paying for a second opinion may be money well spent.
  • Resist high pressure sales tactics. If a salesperson is pressuring you, or doesn’t want to give you a chance to think about it, they may be trying to keep information from you. It is better to walk away from a deal than be pressured into one.
  • Resist pressure from family, friends, and caregivers. Along the same lines, you should be making the call in these decisions. Also, don’t let others speak for you. If you’re working with me, I want to know what you want to do, not what someone else says you want to do.
  • Don’t sign blank forms. Once you’ve signed a blank form, someone else could fill in the blanks to authorize actions you do not want. Don’t let others fill in the details later!
  • Treat telemarketers and other salespeople with scrutiny. Businesses and charities sometimes make cold calls; they may be legitimate, but they might not. In addition to taking your time with transactions, ask for written material about the offer or charity, and get information about the salesperson and their business. Additionally, you can register for Missouri’s no-call list, which should reduce telemarketing calls.
  • Be especially careful with e-mail. Unsolicited e-mail with promises of lottery winnings, people who need your help wiring large sums of money, “get-rich-quick” schemes and other business opportunities, great prices on medication, and other things that sound too good to be true are probably scams.

What can be done in Missouri if you suspect elder abuse or are being abused yourself?

Missouri has an Adult Abuse and Neglect Hotline; the number is 1-800-392-0210.

Hearing-impaired individuals can call using TDD at 1-800-735-2466 and Relay Missouri at 1-800-735-2966.

Anyone who suspects elder abuse (and this can include physical, sexual, and emotional abuse as well as neglect–it’s not just for financial exploitation) can call. Additionally, certain professions must report suspected abuse (see page 3 of the linked report), and can assist in making a report as well.

Photo credit: Gilda, CC 2.0

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