World Elder Abuse Awareness Day recently focused on the increasing financial exploitation of the elderly population. Taking advantage of the elderly and vulnerable can come in two forms:
Outside sources: being overcharged for goods or services, inappropriate investments, telemarketing or mail scams, outside caretakers promising lifelong care for money, “sweetheart scams” professing love for the elderly person, and other explicit fraud and confidence (con) crimes.
Inside sources: family, friends, or neighbors running up debt and/or having the elderly person co-sign on loans that can ultimately ruin their credit and risk assets they may have. Friends or relatives who gain at the family member’s expense by taking possessions, moving in with the expectation that their living expenses will be covered indefinitely without any contribution, or “borrowing” money but never paying it back.
Factors that increase risk are: isolation, loneliness, recent loss of spouse, cognitive or physical impairment creating dependency on others, lack of knowledge of financial matters, or having family members who are chronically unemployed and/or have addiction issues.
Watch for the warning signals which can include:
• Caregiver, relative, or friend suddenly has large amount of unexplained disposable income
• Items in the home are missing.
• Sudden changes in estate planning documents such as a will, beneficiary designations, or account ownership that are questionable.
• Shutting down communication with loved ones.
• Out of the ordinary financial transactions that the senior cannot explain.
• Basic bills not getting paid when there should be income to cover those basics.
• Large amount of mail order items coming in.
• Increasing mail and phone solicitations.
Since this type of abuse often goes unnoticed until it is too late, we all need to be proactive to prevent it from going any farther.
• Visit frequently to check for the above-mentioned warning signals.
• Make sure the senior does not leave financial and other personal information easily accessible in the home, especially if others are coming in and out of the home.
• Check into power of attorney, legal guardianship, or representative payee for social security income if appropriate. Giving control to someone else can also have risks. Establish a checks and balance system to have accountability.
• Coach the senior that it is fine to hang up on persistent telemarketing solicitors. They also should never give out personal information such as social security number and birth date to someone calling them. Have a script, such as “I must talk to my financial advisor before making any decisions,” that they can use.
• Change to an unlisted phone number and change bank account numbers if they are being targeted with calls or questionable withdrawals out of their account.
Once money and assets are gone, it is very difficult to recover anything. Beware that it can be very difficult to prove abuse if an elderly family member is competent to make their own decisions, even though you do not agree with that decision. Often seniors are very embarrassed to let anyone know if they have made an error in judgment. Being there for family members and loved ones can help them avoid turning to people who may not be acting in their best interest. Report any suspected criminal scam or fraudulent activity to the authorities. We need to increase awareness and take action to prevent this from becoming an even more prevalent issue in today’s society.