You may have heard of physical and emotional abuse against older adults, but there’s another way to harm them that’s equally as devastating—and equally as prevalent. It’s called senior financial abuse. According to one study, one in five Americans over 65 has been the victim of fraud.[1. “Elder Investment Fraud and Financial Exploitation,” June 15, 2010, https://www.investorprotection.org/downloads/EIFFE_Survey_Report.pdf] It is believed that financial abuse costs seniors at least $2.9 billion every year. And while it’s bad enough that this exploitation occurs at all, what’s harder to swallow is that, sometimes, it is perpetuated by those the victim trusts most.
Why It’s So Easy for Family Members to Commit Senior Financial Abuse
When we think of people hurting older adults financially, we tend to believe the danger comes from “outside,” like muggers or scam artists.[2. “Fraud Target: Senior Citizens,” https://www.fbi.gov/scams-safety/fraud/seniors] And although this is often true, the real scam artist is just as likely to share the victim’s home, last name, or just a special bond. This is because it’s easier family members or “friends” to gain the victim’s trust and play on their sympathies. Many times, they’re physically around the victim (living with them, caring—or pretending to care—for them), which increases their opportunities to commit financial crimes. Other times, they use the emotional connection they have with the victim to take advantage of them.
Types of Financial Abuse by Family Members
The following are examples of abuse you may see older adults suffer at the hands of family members:
- Running up household bills that are far larger than the victim’s needs
- Manipulating the victim into buying things
- Constantly asking for cash
- Asking for loans that are never repaid
- Stealing cash, checkbooks, credit cards, jewelry, and other valuables (which can appear to just go “missing”)
- Opening credit accounts or applying for loans in the victim’s name
- Forging the victim’s signature
- Getting the victim to sign important documents, such as a deed, will, or financial power of attorney through suspicious means
- Intercepting the victim’s entitlement checks (those related to their pension, Social Security, etc.)
What to Do if You Suspect Senior Financial Abuse
Many older adults are reluctant to admit to or report financial abuse by those close to them. There are many reasons for this, including the fact that they may love the perpetrator, feel guilt or obligation towards them, or are just ashamed the abuse happened in the first place. They may also be dependent upon the perpetrator for basic needs, such as home care or medical services.
However, it is crucial to stop financial abuse before it gets worse, and before the victim loses all their assets or control over them. If you suspect senior financial abuse, the first thing to do is to call your local police department. You can also contact the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services at 800-677-1116. They can steer you towards other organizations in your community that may be able to help.
You’ll also want to get the victim as far away from the alleged perpetrator as possible. Sometimes this means finding different housing accommodations for the victim since they may live in their abuser’s home. Or it may mean changing the locks on the victim’s house if the abuser is staying with them.
It’s advisable for the victim to cut off verbal contact with the perpetrator as well, at least until the situation can be investigated and resolved. This is necessary because the latter may try to emotionally manipulate your loved one into letting the abuse continue.
Finally, revoke the abuser’s access to anything considered valuable to the victim. Close accounts, credit cards, and whatever else the victim shares jointly with the perpetrator. In addition, consider putting a fraud alert on these things, and notify any lenders that loans taken out in the victim’s name may be the result of fraud. Speak to an attorney about your next step, as it may involve criminal prosecution or a civil suit.
If you are unsure of how to best help an aging loved one, the trained and compassionate staff at the Institute on Aging is here to help you make that decision and gain the best in at-home care for older adults. Contact us to find out more.