Although it is a crime in most states, financial abuse continues to cause harm to elderly people throughout the U.S. Victims do not always recognize and report it, making it attractive to scammers. Many elderly people are vulnerable targets for financial abuse because they spend long periods at home, tend to have little financial knowledge, and may be isolated and even mentally disabled. Perpetrators of abuse can be friends and family members or other people who have a pre-existing relationship with the victim, but often they are complete strangers.
Financial abuse may take the form of directly stealing property from an elderly person, or it may involve soliciting payments for services or products that are never provided. More sophisticated scams may consist of forging a signature or fraudulently inducing a signature on a legal document, for example.
Common Types of Financial Abuse
Some studies suggest that elderly people form the overwhelming majority of telemarketing fraud and mail fraud victims in the U.S. They may suffer from identity theft, credit card fraud, and schemes in which telemarketers convince them to prepay for products that they never receive. In other instances, a scammer may charge hidden fees or excessive fees for products or services, or they may even “sell” a product that does not exist. A scammer may call an elderly person to tell them that they have won a lottery or another prize but need to send money before they can collect it.
Did You Know?
People who perpetrate financial abuse often disguise themselves as “helpers,” such as doctors, volunteers, or concerned friends or family members.
Scammers also often play on the emotions of elderly people, who may feel lonely if they do not live with or near family members. Sometimes a scammer will show affection toward an older person in an effort to persuade them to put their name on a financial instrument, which they then use to take their property. Or, posing as law enforcement, they may falsely claim that a loved one has been seriously injured or arrested. This may motivate the elderly person to pay alleged hospital bills or bail.
Undue influence and fraud form the basis of many scams. The perpetrator may make a fake power of attorney or will that names them as an heir or beneficiary, and then they may threaten the elderly person or cajole them into signing the instrument. This is common with regard to elderly people who have mental illnesses.
Recognizing Signs of Financial Abuse
If your loved one may be vulnerable to scams, you should be alert to clues that someone may be defrauding them. If you see large, mysterious charges on a credit card, or uncharacteristic withdrawals from a bank account, this may be a red flag. You should be especially alert to payments made for extravagant purchases that seem unnecessary or payments related to contests or lotteries. When property is missing, bills go unpaid, or checks have suspicious signatures, this may warrant further investigation.
If you see someone whom you do not know getting close to your loved one, and they have no apparent reason for getting close to them, you may reasonably question their motives. You should keep track of whether this person starts acquiring property from your loved one or gaining access to their accounts. If your loved one changes their estate planning instruments in favor of this type of person or another unexpected beneficiary, you should try to find out why they made this choice.
Reporting Financial Abuse
An elderly person or their family may be able to stop financial abuse in its tracks by contacting the bank that handles the account in question. The bank then may handle the process of reporting the abuse to the government. There are also organizations that are dedicated to helping elderly people who have suffered from abuse, such as senior services groups.
The Department of Justice maintains a resource page on finding help and reporting elder financial abuse.
If you believe that a crime has been committed, you can go straight to the police and ask them to investigate. You can also contact Adult Protective Services, which is a branch of the government that assists victims of elder financial abuse.