Know The Signs Of Financial Abuse To Protect Seniors

Jalene Hahn |

Elder abuse and mistreatment is an often-silent problem that robs seniors of their dignity, security and sometimes their lives. Before the pandemic, about 1 in 10 older adults in the U.S. experienced elder mistreatment. In 2020, this number doubled to 1 in 5. For individuals with cognitive impairment, nearly 50% experience some form of abuse and 47% have been mistreated by their caretaker.

Elder financial exploitation—what the industry calls EFE—is one type of elder abuse and mistreatment. EFE schemes generally involve either theft or scams. Scams and fraud are generally perpetrated by unknown actors and can be perpetrated by anyone. Perpetrators of elder theft are often people known and trusted by older adults. Examples of financial theft can include forging checks, taking someone else’s retirement or Social Security benefits, or using a person’s credit cards and bank accounts without his or her permission. It also includes changing names on a will, bank account, life insurance policy or title to a house without permission.

Detecting abuse and neglect can be difficult, and many incidents go unidentified and unreported as victims may choose not to come forward out of fear of reprisal, loss of independence, embarrassment, loss of primary relationship and family dynamics. While there is no one single profile of a perpetrator or a victim, statistically victims are more likely to be widowed women over age 75, geographically or socially isolated and have a functional or cognitive disability. Perpetrator traits vary widely, but 60% of perpetrators are male relatives of the victim, financially dependent on the elder, have a history of substance abuse, are unemployed or have poor mental health. One key psychological component for a perpetrator is that he or she is in a position of trust to exert undue influence over the victim.

The American Bar Association defines “undue influence” as the “excessive persuasion that causes another person to act or refrain from acting by overcoming that person’s free will and results in inequity.” Exertion of undue influence is not an event; it is a process done over time. Perpetrators work to isolate the victim and exploit cognitive deficiencies and/or major life transitions.

The personal consequences for victims can be severe. Feelings of fear, shame, anger, self-doubt, remorse and worthlessness are common. Victims lose their sense of security and trust in others. In extreme cases, some victims become suicidal.

Economically, victims may be left financially destitute and unable to pay for necessary care now or in the future. They may also face the loss of their primary residence. Almost 1 in 10 financial abuse victims will need to rely on Medicaid.

Warning signs that may indicate a senior is a victim of financial exploitation include:

  • Unusual patterns of spending or withdrawals from an older adult’s account.
  • Unpaid or past due bills.
  • Missing money or valuable items.
  • Sudden changes to power of attorney, property titles or wills.
  • Receiving substandard care relative to the quality he or she can afford.
  • The presence of a new “best friend” who is accepting generous “gifts” from the older adult.

If you’re an independent older adult, you can stay safe by:

  • Taking care of your health.
  • Decreasing social isolation by staying active in the community and connected with friends and family.
  • Posting and opening your own mail.
  • Using direct deposit for all checks.
  • Having your own phone.

As we gather for Thanksgiving and year-end holidays, steps family members can take to decrease the risk of elder abuse include paying attention to the older adults in your life and checking in with their caregivers, taking the time to listen and to understand their challenges, and looking for ways to provide support, such as recruiting help from friends and family. Local relief care groups, adult day care programs, counseling and other outlets intended to promote emotional well-being can be helpful. Knowing there is someone watching out and taking an interest may help reduce the instance of elder financial theft.