Every day, at least 1,000 elderly Americans are financially exploited or abused. If one of them is your parent, another relative, or a close friend, you can—and should—do something about it. Here’s what we suggest.
What exactly is elder fraud?
It’s the illegal or improper use of an elder’s funds, property or assets, according to the National Center on Elder Abuse (part of the U.S. Administration on Aging). Among the most common financial abuses:
- Cashing an older person’s checks without permission
- Forging their signature
- Misusing or stealing their money or possessions
- Coercing or deceiving them into signing any document (e.g., contracts or a will)
Who’s behind it?
“Elder fraud” may make you think of Internet schemes (“I’m a widow in Nigeria who needs to claim an inheritance…”) or telephone scams (“Hi, Grandma? I’m in jail down here in Mexico…”).
“Scams and other forms of fraud committed by strangers certainly exist,” agrees Kathy Greenlee, former Assistant Secretary for Aging in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “But unfortunately, the vast majority of elder abuse cases—about 90%—are perpetrated by family members, most often adult children and spouses, or by lawyers, bankers, financial advisors and other professionals trusted by the elder.”
How to spot it
Any of these 10 signs may indicate financial exploitation:
- Sudden changes in bank account or banking practice, including an unexplained withdrawal of large sums of money by a person accompanying the elder
- Names added to an elder’s bank signature card
- Unauthorized withdrawal of funds using the elder’s ATM card
- Abrupt changes in a will or other financial documents
- Unexplained disappearance of funds or valuable possessions
- Substandard care being provided or bills unpaid despite the availability of adequate financial resources
- Discovery of an elder’s signature being forged for financial transactions or for the titles of his/her possessions
- Sudden appearance of previously uninvolved relatives claiming their rights to an elder’s affairs and possessions
- Unexplained sudden transfer of assets to a family member or someone outside the family
- Provision of unnecessary services
How to stop it
Report it. If someone is in actual danger, call 911. Otherwise, contact the local Adult Protective Services, your state’s Long-Term Care Ombudsman if the person lives in a nursing home or similar facility, or police. In most states, elder abuse can be reported anonymously. You don’t have to provide proof; the authorities will investigate your concerns.
How to prevent it
An older person you know could be vulnerable to financial fraud if they fit all or part of this profile:
- Need a caregiver because of disabilities or cognitive decline
- Are widowed or socially isolated
- Don’t feel confident making financial decisions alone
- Find bill-paying “confusing”
- Often receive calls, emails, or mailings asking for money
First, try to educate the elder about potential fraud by strangers, as well as by someone close to them. (You’ll find many informative resources at https://www.stopfraud.gov/protect-yourself.html.)
Visit regularly. Do you notice bills piling up, outgoing mail with an unusual address, or the frequent presence of someone new? If so, find out more. Volunteer to help with the bills. You might also share your concerns quietly with the older person’s branch manager.
If things are serious, you may need a legal power of attorney, which gives you the older person’s permission to act for them in certain matters. The last resort is to apply for guardianship or conservatorship, a process requiring proof that an elder can no longer manage their own affairs.
Take a stand!
“Financial exploitation is the most frequent form of elder abuse, and it’s only going to get worse until we all become part of the solution,” says Greenlee. “We are at a time of great opportunity to stem the tide.” Let’s do it!
- Personal interview with Kathy Greenlee, August 2014
- Veronica Dagher, “If an Elderly Parent Has Been Scammed,” The Wall Street Journal, 6/13/16
- “Elder Abuse Facts,” National Council on Aging, undated, accessed 11/30/16 (https://www.ncoa.org/public-policy-action/elder-justice/elder-abuse-facts/)
- National Center on Elder Abuse, accessed 11/30/16 (https://ncea.acl.gov/)