Elder financial abuse spans a broad spectrum of conduct, including:
- Taking money or property
- Forging an older person's signature
- Getting an older person to sign a deed, will, or power of attorney through deception, coercion, or undue influence
- Using the older person's property or possessions without permission
- Promising lifelong care in exchange for money or property and not following through on the promise
- Confidence crimes ("cons") are the use of deception to gain victims' confidence
- Scams are fraudulent or deceptive acts
- Fraud is the use of deception, trickery, false pretence, or dishonest acts or statements for financial gain
- Telemarketing scams. Perpetrators call victims and use deception, scare tactics, or exaggerated claims to get them to send money. They may also make charges against victims' credit cards without authorization
Who are the perpetrators?
Family members, including sons, daughters, grandchildren, or spouses. They may:
- Have substance abuse, gambling, or financial problems
- Stand to inherit and feel justified in taking what they believe is "almost" or "rightfully" theirs
- Fear that their older family member will get sick and use up their savings, depriving the abuser of an inheritance
- Have had a negative relationship with the older person and feel a sense of "entitlement"
- Have negative feelings toward siblings or other family members whom they want to prevent from acquiring or inheriting the older person's assets
Predatory individuals who seek out vulnerable seniors with the intent of exploiting them. They may:
- Profess to love the older person ("sweetheart scams")
- Seek employment as personal care attendants, counselors, etc. to gain access
- Identify vulnerable persons by driving through neighborhoods (to find persons who are alone and isolated) or contact recently widowed persons they find through newspaper death announcements
- Move from community to community to avoid being apprehended (transient criminals)
Unscrupulous professionals or businesspersons, or persons posing as such. They may:
- Overcharge for services or products
- Use deceptive or unfair business practices
- Use their positions of trust or respect to gain compliance
Who is at risk?
The following conditions or factors increase an older person's risk of being victimized:
- Recent losses
- Physical or mental disabilities
- Lack of familiarity with financial matters
- Have family members who are unemployed and/or have substance abusers problems
Why are the elderly attractive targets?
- Persons over the age of 50 control over 70% of the nation's wealth
- Many seniors do not realize the value of their assets (particularly homes that have appreciated markedly)
- The elderly are likely to have disabilities that make them dependent on others for help. These "helpers" may have access to homes and assets, and may exercise significant influence over the older person
- They may have predictable patterns (e.g. because older people are likely to receive monthly checks, abusers can predict when an older people will have money on hand or need to go to the bank)
- Severely impaired individuals are also less likely to take action against their abusers as a result of illness or embarrassment
- Abusers may assume that frail victims will not survive long enough to follow through on legal interventions, or that they will not make convincing witnesses
- Some older people are unsophisticated about financial matters
- Advances in technology have made managing finances more complicated
What are the indicators?
Indicators are signs or clues that abuse has occurred. Some of the indicators listed below can be explained by other causes or factors and no single indicator can be taken as conclusive proof. Rather, one should look for patterns or clusters of indicators that suggest a problem.
- Unpaid bills, eviction notices, or notices to discontinue utilities
- Withdrawals from bank accounts or transfers between accounts that the older person cannot explain
- Bank statements and canceled checks no longer come to the elder's home
- New "best friends"
- Legal documents, such as powers of attorney, which the older person didn't understand at the time he or she signed them
- Unusual activity in the older person's bank accounts including large, unexplained withdrawals, frequent transfers between accounts, or ATM withdrawals
- The care of the elder is not commensurate with the size of his/her estate
- A caregiver expresses excessive interest in the amount of money being spent on the older person
- Belongings or property are missing
- Suspicious signatures on checks or other documents
- Absence of documentation about financial arrangements
- Implausible explanations given about the elderly person's finances by the elder or the caregiver
- The elder is unaware of or does not understand financial arrangements that have been made for him or her
How can I learn more?
Nerenberg, L. (1999). Forgotten victims of elder financial crime and abuse: A report and recommendations. Produced by the Goldman Institute on Aging for the National Center on Aging (NCEA), this report summarized four roundtable discussions sponsored by NCEA, which focused on four components of the legal system: the state and criminal justice system, federal investigative and regulatory agencies, the civil legal system, and the victim witness assistance network. Professionals from each system described challenges they face in handling financial abuse cases and made recommendations for improving each system's response. To view, click here to download it from the NCEA web site.
Volume 12 Number 2 (2000) of the Journal of Elder Abuse & Neglect is devoted to elder financial abuse. For more information about JEAN and a listing of articles in the issue, click here.
A/PACT: Aging Parents and Children Together. Produced by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), this consumer education series includes 10 1-3 page articles focusing on consumer fraud, daily money management, alternatives to guardianship, etc. Contact the AARP for more information.