How to Spot Elder Abuse and Scams
Financial abuse can happen to anyone at any stage of life. But an increasing number of Americans aged over 65 are finding themselves victims of fraud, scams, and theft. Each year, financial abuse of the elderly is estimated to cost individuals over $36 billion in lost assets or credit.
So what can be done to prevent abuse and scams from impacting older Americans? We’re here to help you understand what financial abuse is, how you can spot it early, and what you can do if you think that you or a loved one may have become a victim of financial abuse.
What is financial elder abuse?
Financial elder abuse is a serious crime where another person or entity exploits an older person financially. This can take place in any setting, like their own home or a care facility, and the abuse can be committed by anyone that they come into contact with.
In most cases, there is an established relationship with an expectation of trust – this could be a family member, a friend, or even a care provider. In other cases, though, older people are targeted specifically due to their age or a disability.
Financial abuse can take many different forms. Money or belongings may be directly stolen from an older individual, either in person or from their bank account. Abusers can also forge checks, cash checks belonging to the older person, or use their credit cards without permission.
Stealing retirement or Social Security benefits is also a form of theft that specifically impacts those over 65. In some situations, scammers can even transfer property deeds, change details in wills, or amend life insurance policies through the misuse of power of attorney.
Why are the elderly targeted?
As we age, cognitive and physical changes can make us more susceptible to financial abuse as we rely on others to take care of us. Unfortunately, increasing cognitive or functional impairment and poor physical health make older adults a significant target for scammers.
Potential financial abusers are also very aware that many senior citizens have accumulated a high level of wealth or assets throughout their life and are now in a position where they are managing their own retirement savings and investments. Alongside this, rapid and ever-changing advances in technology have made it difficult for older people to know who to trust and what software and apps are safe.
As the number of older people in the population increases each year, this group becomes more at risk of experiencing financial abuse.
Signs that a family member can use to spot elder abuse
In most elderly financial abuse cases, the victim has been exploited by someone they know and trust. They can be of any age, gender, race, or socioeconomic status and have a close or loose connection to the victim. Family members, friends, service providers, peers, and even strangers have all taken advantage of older adults for their financial assets.
Even if you find yourself, or your relative, a victim of con artists or scammers through a romance scam, fake contests, or impersonations of family or officials, you do not need to prove that abuse is occurring. Once reported, professionals will take over the investigation for you.
But how do you know if abuse is taking place to report it? You can look out for several signs that could be important red flags.
Uncharacteristic purchases made by the individual or their caregiver, failure to pay bills or keep appointments, and even a behavior change can indicate something is wrong. This is especially true if bills are unpaid, despite adequate financial resources.
Unusual activity on bank accounts, like large, frequent, or unexplained transactions, can be key. If ATM withdrawals are suddenly being made on accounts that the older person had never made ATM withdrawals on previously, this should also be looked into.
But not all of the signs of financial abuse are this obvious. If you notice someone close to the older person driving a new car or spending more lavishly than they previously had, some further investigation should happen. Missing heirlooms such as jewelry, watches, paintings, or even furniture from the home of the elderly individual can also suggest a larger problem.
There are countless ways that elderly abuse can occur, and it often goes unreported as the individual doesn’t even realize that they’re being taken advantage of or having their assets stolen.
How to avoid becoming a victim of elder abuse
The best protection to prevent yourself from becoming a victim of elder financial abuse is to understand the signs to protect your own assets. Registering your phone number with the National Do Not Call Registry at www.DoNotCall.gov or 888-382-1222 is an excellent first step to prevent scammers from reaching you.
If you receive any suspicious calls, text messages, or emails, it’s best to hang up immediately or ignore them. Scammers will often ask for personal information, demand payment, or even threaten action against you. Some of the details that they might ask for or refer to can include:
- Threats to suspend your Social Security number
- Warnings of arrest or legal action
- Demands for immediate payment by gift card, prepaid debit card, digital currency, or mailing cash
- Threats to seize your bank accounts or retirement funds
- Promises to increase your Social Security benefit
Many of these scammers will pressure you to reply with personal details and usually request secrecy. They may even try to gain your trust by providing fake documentation or “evidence” to make you believe they are real government or banking officials. Genuine officials would never ask for this type of information, so if this is being requested, it’s a scam.
Even with the best security systems, you may still receive messages like this. But taking proactive action can help mitigate any threats that may come up in the future. Protect your assets by making your wishes about your finances clear, either to someone at your financial institution or your attorney.
Lock up your checkbook, account statements, and other sensitive information when others are in your home. Switching to electronic payments, shredding old paperwork, and checking your credit reports at least once a year can help you avoid identity theft or catch any problems before they get worse.
Remember to trust your instincts. If you suspect that someone close to you is trying to take control of your finances or a message that you receive doesn’t feel right, you need to take action. Call your local Adult Protective Services or tell someone at your bank so that alerts can be triggered and an investigation started to ensure that your money is safe.
What you can do about elder abuse in your family or community
Whether an older adult can protect themselves or not, having close relatives or friends to watch out for them and their financial well-being is crucial. This becomes especially important if an older person has significant wealth or has cognitive impairments that make managing their own finances more difficult.
Talk to your elderly friends and loved ones to see if any of the signs we’ve mentioned here are happening in their life. Try to find out if they have a new person “helping” with their money management or if their credit cards are being used by someone else. If you manage mail for an elderly relative and notice that bank or credit card statements stop appearing at your address, this can be a sign that they’ve been redirected to someone else and are being used fraudulently.
No matter how little the evidence is, if you suspect that an elderly loved one is being financially abused, contact their bank as soon as possible. In 2018, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) passed two laws to help protect against elder financial abuse. These allow broker-dealers to place a temporary hold on disbursements from a client’s account and facilitate communication between a firm and a customer’s trusted contact. Taking steps to inform financial organizations can prevent even more damage to your elderly loved one’s finances.
You should also contact the Adult Protective Services for your town or state for extra assistance. Reporting all instances of elderly abuse to your local police is also important. If suspected fraud has taken place, they’ll need to investigate.
Every state has a long-term care ombudsman who advocates for residents of assisted living and nursing home facilities, and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has an office for older Americans to contact if they believe that financial abuse has occurred. The National Center for Elder Abuse and National Elder Fraud Hotline can also be excellent resources if you’re concerned.
Protect the finances of older Americans
Elderly financial abuse won’t stop on its own without someone stepping in to help. For many older people, admitting that they’ve made a mistake and responded to a suspicious message or allowed someone access to their finances can be embarrassing and traumatic. Most are too ashamed to report the abuse, while many fear that a report will get back to the abuser and worsen the situation.
But there are steps that can be taken to prevent financial abuse from happening. Taking early action to protect an older adult’s assets and reporting suspicious activity can make all the difference. At BTC Bank, we’re here to support you and your loved ones if you suspect abuse on personal or business accounts.