Elder Financial Abuse: How to Spot and Report It

One of the most common ways elders experience abuse is through misappropriation of funds

According to the National Council of Aging, nearly five million older Americans face elder abuse each year, resulting in financial losses of approximately $36.5 billion annually. When family members, caregivers, or even strangers are empowered to manage finances on behalf of older individuals, it can be difficult to detect elder financial abuse.

What is Elder Financial Abuse?

Elder financial abuse is a form of exploitation targeting older individuals (aged 60 or older), involving the unauthorized use or manipulation of their financial resources. This type of abuse can manifest in various forms, including fraud, deceit, or coercion. It often preys upon the vulnerabilities associated with aging, such as cognitive decline, physical dependence, or social isolation. Perpetrators can be family members, caregivers, acquaintances, or strangers who exploit the trust and dependency of older individuals for personal gain.

Common tactics include scams, identity theft, financial fraud, or the misuse of legal instruments like powers of attorney. Perpetrators may trick elders into providing sensitive information, coercively influence financial decisions, or misappropriate funds entrusted to them. The impact of elder financial abuse extends beyond monetary loss, affecting the emotional well-being and overall quality of life of the victims.

Identifying Elder Financial Abuse

Identifying elder financial abuse requires a keen awareness of warning signs and behavioral changes in older individuals. Some key indicators include:

Unusual Financial Transactions

If you notice sudden or unexplained withdrawals, transfers, or large purchases that the older person can’t account for, that can signal financial exploitation. 

Changes in Banking Habits

Drastic alterations in banking patterns, such as new joint accounts, sudden closures, or the addition of unfamiliar individuals to the account, may be red flags.

Changes in Spending Habits

Besides odd banking habits, elders with little interest in shopping or eating out could suggest financial abuse. 

Isolation or Lack of Social Interaction

Elders experiencing financial abuse may be isolated from friends and family, limiting their social interactions and support systems. They may devise an excuse each time you invite them to get together out of fear of punishment or consequences from the person exploiting their finances. 

Unexplained Legal Documents

The sudden appearance of unfamiliar legal documents, changes to wills, or amendments to powers of attorney without clear explanation can indicate potential abuse.

Fear or Apprehension

Expressions of fear, anxiety, or reluctance to discuss financial matters may suggest coercion or manipulation. Elders encountering financial abuse may also express irritability or anger over the subject as well; they may feel powerless to stop what’s happening to them.

Unpaid Bills or Disconnection Notices

Neglected bills, frequent disconnection notices, or utilities being shut off despite financial capability can point to financial mismanagement.

Unwarranted Gifts or Excessive Spending

Older individuals coerced into giving gifts, making loans, or engaging in excessive spending may be victims of manipulation.

An Unexpected Relative Shows Up

Sometimes, relatives who have previously shown little interest or lacked participation in the elder’s life may claim rights to possessions, assets, or property out of the blue. 

Unexplained Financial Dependency

Older individuals suddenly becoming financially dependent on new individuals who exhibit controlling behavior could indicate exploitation. 

Unfamiliar Signatures

Forged signatures on checks, legal documents, or unfamiliar account activity may suggest unauthorized access to financial resources.

Lack of Knowledge about Finances

Elders being unaware of their own financial situation, assets, or recent transactions may indicate manipulation or cognitive decline.

Reporting Elder Financial Abuse

Reporting elder financial abuse is a crucial step in safeguarding vulnerable individuals and holding perpetrators accountable. Even though elder financial abuse may be more common than people may realize, very few cases are reported. If you want to make a difference in the life of an elder encountering financial abuse, there are several things you can do to offer support: 

Contact Local Law Enforcement

If you suspect immediate danger, contact local law enforcement authorities right away. Provide them with as much detail as possible about the situation, including evidence of financial exploitation.

Reach Out to Adult Protective Services (APS)

Contact your local Adult Protective Services agency, which is designed to address the abuse, neglect, and exploitation of older and vulnerable adults. APS professionals can conduct investigations and intervene to protect the elder in question.

Call the National Elder Fraud Hotline

The U.S. Department of Justice operates the National Elder Fraud Hotline (1-833-FRAUD-11 or 1-833-372-8311), where trained professionals can assist and guide you on the appropriate steps.

Contact the Financial Institutions

If financial abuse involves unauthorized transactions or suspicious activities with banks or financial institutions, notify them immediately. They may have protocols in place to investigate and mitigate the impact.

Consult Legal Professionals

Seek advice from legal professionals, including attorneys specializing in elder law. They can guide you on legal actions that may be taken against the perpetrator and help protect the elder’s rights.

Report to the Long-Term Care Ombudsman

If the elder resides in a nursing home or long-term care facility, contact the Long-Term Care Ombudsman program in their area. They advocate for the rights and well-being of residents.

Keep Detailed Records

Maintain a detailed record of the suspected financial abuse, including dates, amounts, individuals involved, and any relevant documentation. This information can be crucial for investigations.

Support the Victim

Offer emotional support to the victim throughout the reporting process. Elders may feel vulnerable or embarrassed, so it’s essential to approach the situation with empathy and compassion.

Preventing Elder Financial Abuse

Whether you’re a senior citizen looking to protect yourself or you have a senior in your life that you’re concerned about, several proactive steps can be taken to prevent elder financial abuse. Here are five essential tips: 

Reduce Phone Scams 

A wide range of telephone scams are designed to separate seniors from their money. 

Older Americans must be mindful not to give over sensitive information, such as Social Security numbers, bank account information, or credit card numbers, to unknown callers. 

Reach Out to the Right People

Consult a trusted family member or attorney before making a large purchase or investment. 

Safeguard Personal Information

Rather than throwing it away, shred sensitive information, such as credit card statements, bank documents, or other financial records.

Run a Background Check

If the time comes to hire in-home care, it’s important to run a background check. In-home care providers can access sensitive personal information, and the wrong person can easily exploit it. 

Enlist the Help of Technology

Help the senior in your life enroll in mobile banking notifications. It will alert them to any transactions that occur or when account balances fall below a certain threshold. Banking notifications can keep them apprised of any charges that weren’t legitimately authorized. 

Many instigators of elder financial abuse are participants in ACH and wire transfer fraud. BankerHub’s ACH and Wire Fraud Trends, Identification, Investigation and Recovery webinar explores elder financial exploitation. The session covers investigative strategies when fraud has been identified and leading practices for implementing effective ACH and Wire Fraud incident response plans. 

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