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When Should You Act on Red Flags of Elder Financial Abuse?

Learn about the common scams and the signs of potential trouble

Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging

Editor’s note: This is the eighth in the Next Avenue “When Should You…” series on aging milestones for parents or loved ones. With our partners at the Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging, we will address common caregiving concerns.

Though people over 65 make up 13 percent of the U.S. population, they are targets of almost 35 percent of all financial exploitation and abuse – which runs the gamut from being fast-talked into signing up for magazines they won’t read to being sweet-talked into signing documents that strip them of their assets. (The United Nations has designated Monday June 15 World Elder Abuse Awareness Day.)

If you are caring for an older loved one, be sure to keep a watchful eye out for signs of financial exploitation or abuse. Share information about common scams and red flags with your loved one, so they do not fall victim to exploitation.

Who’s Abusing – and Why?

According to a recent MetLife report, abusers fall into two broad categories:

Fifty-one percent are strangers — mostly men — who use the mail, phone or, increasingly, email to contact their victims. “They are relentless…and they have one goal: to get the [older] person’s money,” says Bert Rahl, director of mental health services at Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging.

Forty-nine percent are family members, friends, paid caregivers or professionals the person depends on. “These people aren’t just taking the person’s financial resources, they’re taking their trust and emotional well-being, too,” Rahl says.

Women at Risk

Both men and women are financial abuse targets, but more women are exploited and abused because they live longer. In addition, the targets…

  • Typically live alone or with a non-spouse relative
  • Have assets (a mortgage-free home, jewelry, etc.) and resources (bank, savings, retirement and investment accounts)
  • Often have chronic conditions — arthritis, heart disease, cognitive impairment, etc. — that make it difficult to get out and isolate them
  • Were raised in a time when women were taught to be giving, nice and polite

All of this leaves them prey to the kind of undue influence (wheedling, cajoling, coercion) and threats (of abandonment, of physical harm, of being placed in a nursing home) that financial abusers use to get access to their money, valuables, deeds, wills and other legal documents.

Red Flags

Be especially mindful if your loved one experiences a drastic change in their care needs.

They are relentless... and they have one goal: to get the [older] person’s money.

— Bert Rahl, Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging

When a loved one becomes dependent on another family member, a neighbor, a paid care giver or a new acquaintance, “there’s always the chance that [the other person] will take advantage of the situation to pressure them into gifting and/or buying or doing things that they would not ordinarily do or have done for them,” Rahl explained.

When the “change flag” goes up, the following are signs that financial exploitation and/or abuse could be on the horizon — or is already taking place:

  • The appearance of a new caregiver or “friend”
  • Lack of amenities (food, medical care, clothing, outings, etc.) the person could normally afford
  • Indications — fewer outings, nervousness around the new care provider or “friend” — that the older adult is being isolated and controlled
  • Complaints of (or confusion about) stolen or misplaced credit cards, valuables, checkbooks or retirement checks from either the older person or the new person in their life
  • Sudden changes in the person’s banking practices including checks written to unusual recipients (salesmen, telemarketers, “cash”), suspicious withdrawals and newly-created joint accounts
  • Large credit card transactions and/or an unusual increase in credit card debt
  • Far-fetched explanations of why money is needed or was spent
  • The care provider — whether family member, paid employee or friend — seems to be “living off” the older person
  • Abrupt changes in a will or other financial documents or transfer of the person’s assets to a family member, acquaintance, or care provider without a reasonable explanation

When You Suspect Financial Abuse

The earlier you spot the signs and do something about them the better.

However, says Rahl, “That may not be so easy because in many cases those who are being exploited are willing participants, or are hiding what’s going on.”

Discuss your concerns with your loved one, but make sure you are patient, understanding and nonjudgmental. Many victims of financial abuse and exploitation do not report the abuse due to embarrassment.

Point out the red flags you are seeing and gently ask what is going on. If they allow it, go over their banking and financial statements with them and/or discuss them with their attorney, financial planner or banker.

Subtly “challenge” the suspected exploiter. Often asking probing questions in a non-threatening tone will deter the person because they know you are on to them.

For things like mail fraud, repair scams, credit card abuse or theft of valuables or property, call the local police department about an “illegal taking.”

Where the financial abuse is due to cognitive or physical impairment, make an anonymous call to your county’s Department of Senior and Adult Services or your state’s Elder Abuse Hotline.

However, if your loved one is not impaired, and even if what you suspect is true, the situation may not get resolved because, Rahl says, “all adults have the right to make what others would consider foolish decisions with their money and resources.”

That includes your loved one. So arm yourself with information, keep a close eye on the situation and make sure to keep the doors to communication open.

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