Elder financial abuse, part I

Elder financial abuse, part I

When elder financial abuse comes from those who are closest to their victim.

A real case of elder financial abuse
An elderly woman helps a child knead dough on a counter. She is smiling.

My career in banking started at one of America’s largest banks. I worked at a small branch in Maryland, and sometimes I had to work the drive-through teller window.  There were an elderly woman and her niece who often drove up together. They would make withdrawals together and pay bills with me at the bank. They were often on their way to medical appointments, or to buy groceries. Sometimes the niece would come alone to cash a check when her aunt wasn’t feeling well.

With time, the aunt started looking withdrawn, thinner. I didn’t know, I thought it was illness, or age. Less than a year later the family came in. They questioned us about the behavior of these two women. They asked why I cashed checks for the niece. I told them the truth, that I did everything according to our procedures. I didn’t understand what the issue was.

What we had failed to see was the young woman’s substance abuse problem. She had used her aunt to finance her habit for a year, till the money ran out. This happened in the late 90s, before the term “elder financial abuse” existed. The family was unable to do anything about the problem, as the aunt refused to press charges. At the bank did everything right, by the book; we simply didn’t detect the problem.

Elder financial abuse today

Back then we didn’t know realize how pervasive this type of situations would become. More than 369,000 incidents of financial abuse targeting older adults are reported to authorities in the U.S. each year, causing an estimated $4.8 billion in losses. Experts believe that these numbers are under-representative of the reality of elder financial abuse, as many victims refuse to report.

This year about 55 million people in the United States are over 65, and almost 6 million of them are over 85. We can extrapolate these figures to any country. The world’s population is aging and the economic situation in many places is ideally conductive to abuse.

Portrait of a serious, inquisitive older man.

At OAS FCU we believe firmly in helping our members, and this is why we will be presenting a series of articles on the topic of elder financial abuse. The more people know and understand it, the more we will be protecting our elders.

This article will talk about the signs that will help you detect elder financial abuse. I will also talk about the likeliest close-by perpetrators, and which elders are most at risk of abuse and reporting it.

Warning signs of financial abuse

It may not be easy to see a person’s bank statements, as any person might be reticent to show theirs. However, if you are a caring relative and fear financial abuse, this list at least will help you start looking for signs:

  • Large account withdrawals when previously there were none. They may be in person, by wire, check, or ACH;
  • A new parallel joint account;
  • ATM withdrawals by a very elderly person;
  • Sudden appearance of credit cards (existing or new) with balances;
  • Unpaid bill notices, eviction notices and disconnected utilities, when they happen to an older person who has a new friend or a relative helping them, are a fairly good indicator;
  • Sudden NSF notices;
  • Weight loss;
  • Unlikely explanations regarding the older person’s finances, either by the caregiver or the victim.
    image of a nurse, with the face cut off above the chin.
  • Belongings or property are missing. They may clearly state that they gave them to the person who Is suspect;
  • Unusual activity in their accounts: increase in checks cashed, transfers and/or ATM withdrawals;
  • New best friends, new old friends of the family, or new close relatives in the person’s environment;
  • Hired caregivers taking an interest in the person’s finances;
  • Absence of account statements or other financial arrangements papers.

Difficulties that you might face

Obviously, in some cases the victim is aware of the crime and may have reasons to be unwilling to admit it or accuse their abuser:

  • Fear people judging them unfit to care for themselves, and being sent to a home.
  • They may actually depend on their abuser’s physical and domestic care, and fear losing it.
  • A familial relation between abuser and victim might affect the victim’s willingness to report.
  • Sometimes, there may be a physical abuse situation parallel to the financial one and they may fear for their own safety.

Take these possibilities into account, as it’s best to tread tactfully when investigating any signs of abuse or neglect.

Who commits these crimes?

Unfortunately, there are many things to look out for, but here are some traits of the criminals that have been convicted of these crimes in years past:

  • Relatives of the older person, including their children, grandchildren, and all their spouses. In these cases they have a variety of personal justifications for their behavior: substance abuse or economic hardship; a bad relationship with the older person that gives them a sense of vindictive entitlement to their money; the fear that as the older person gets older they will get sick and use up what should be their rightful inheritance (yes, that’s rich, right?); and also those who have a bad relationship with the rest of the family and want to get their money.
  • Professional scammers who live off the elderly. Among them you will find the sweetheart lover scams, personal care attendants or assistants that use their jobs to gain access and steal, people who contact the recently widowed from seeing newspaper announcements, claiming to be friends of the family, and transient criminals offering home services.
  • Unscrupulous business people who overcharge the elderly, use their businesses to gain the trust of the older person and them steal, and those who use confusing and deceptive and unfair business deals to make money.

Are all elder people at risk of being financially abused?

Technically yes, because it’s a matter not of the person but of their circumstances. Nonetheless, financial abuse seems to happen more often to older people with specific circumstances:

  • Elderly who live alone and have always considered themselves independent, and oftentimes pride themselves of it.
  • People who are isolated, lonely or have had recent family losses. Because of emotional factors, people in these situations are more prone to trust and allow others into their inner circle.
  • Older people who are at the beginning stages of physical or facultative degeneration problems. They refuse to allow family and close friends to help, and are often willing to let third parties help them because they aren’t “family” and the victim doesn’t feel judged by getting help from outside their circle.
  • People who are unfamiliar with their finances or financial matters because someone used to help them before, and are now on their own.
  • Older folks who have relatives who are unemployed and/or have substance abuse/financial problems.

Taking action
The hands of two people holding each other, one younger than the other.

Please, take a few moments to think of the elderly that you know. Does anyone’s situation correlate to anything you’ve read here? If so, that would be your cue to reach out to them or other family members of theirs to talk about it.

Have you confirmed that you have detected a case of elder financial abuse? Do you feel that you must take action? Depending on the degree of concern about their situation based on the confirmed evidence, you may:

  • Contact 911 or your country’s emergency number if you have concerns for their safety. This is a legitimate, especially if you fear that the abuser may exact retribution from the victim if/when you leave.
  • Another resource is your local Protective Services, who will provide advice and assistance when needed. The site for the National Adult Protective Services Association offices state by state.
  • If you are in the United States, your best source to get started is US Administration on Aging’s ElderCare site. There, you will find the resources to report elder financial abuse by state and zip code; resources for the elder and their families; a blog with lots of useful information. It’s the best site in existence right now and it’s continuously updated with new information and sources.
  • If you live abroad I suggest looking for this type of site in your country. Start by searching “report elder financial abuse in (country name).” If you find no good leads, search for elderly assistance government agencies that might be able to assist you. Ultimately you can also report the problem to the authorities, of course. The ElderCare site listed above also has information on how to handle your investigation regardless of where you live, so it’s still useful.

Other ways you can help

Pay attention to those around you, especially any older adults who live alone. Call and visit your elders regularly. Even by talking to your own elderly neighbors, you might be in a position to detect changes in them that could be clues. We can all help.

And finally: please share this information with others. The more awareness of this issue, the better equipped we all are to help.

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