Woman assists elderly relative with her computer.

Elder Financial Abuse: how to spot the warning signs and protect the ones you love

June is Elder Abuse Awareness Month. “Elder abuse” is a catchall term that can involve physical or emotional harm, lack of adequate care, and more. In this article, we will focus on one specific aspect: elder financial abuse. If there are seniors in your life who may be vulnerable, we hope it will help you identify the risk factors — and start some important conversations.

While estimates vary and many incidents are not reported, it’s clear that financial abuse affects millions of older Americans and costs them billions of dollars every year. It takes many forms. An urgent phone call from a “grandchild” in trouble who needs money fast. Bogus home repair firms that require payment up front – then never do the work. Phishing emails. Investment scams and phony sweepstakes. Fake charities. IRS impersonators. Forged financial documents. Outright theft of cash and jewelry. And so on. There’s a long and troubling list of methods criminals use to rip off older Americans.

But the saddest part is this: the “vast majority” of reported cases involve people known to the victim, according to the National Adult Protective Services Association. This includes caregivers, neighbors, friends, and often, even close relatives. It’s easy to see why criminals target the elderly. Many older Americans have substantial wealth. Declines in cognitive thinking and decision-making can make them more trusting of the people around them and less able to see the warning signs. That’s where you come in.

How can you safeguard your loved ones? The first step is to be involved and alert to factors that may put them at risk.  

 Here are some key questions to ask yourself:  

  • Are they showing signs of memory loss or declining mental abilities?
  • Have you noticed any unusual financial activity that is not easily explained?
  • Have they recently opened a joint bank account with another person?
  • Has a new “friend” shown up recently who seems to have influence over them? Does that person discourage contact with other friends and family members?
  • Is someone with a history of financial or addiction problems showing increased interest in their financial assets?
  • Has there been any family tension about inheritances or anyone encouraging them to change their estate plans?
  • Are any valuable objects missing from their homes?

You get the idea. If you answered yes to any of these questions, it may be time to step in. Here are some tips.

  • Open the lines of communication. Talk openly about your concerns. Discuss the problem of elder financial abuse in a general way and assure your loved ones you are there for them if any issues arise. If you have any suspicions, find a good time to bring them up.
  • Offer to help with finances. For example, you can occasionally review bank and credit card statements together for signs of fraud. If the elder agrees, the bank may give you view-only access to their account, or appoint you a “trusted contact” and inform you directly of any suspicious activity.
  • Keep an eye on the caregivers. If your loved ones require in-home help, work with a reputable agency that screens its caregivers thoroughly. Make sure the caregiver knows you are paying attention to how your loved one is being treated. That kind of oversight makes abuse far less likely.
  • Discuss the basics of data security. At a minimum, they should know to never divulge passwords, respond to suspicious phone calls or emails, provide sensitive personal information or a Social Security number to strangers, and so on.
  • Keep them socially involved. Isolation can increase opportunities for abuse. Be present in their lives, listen to what they say, include them in social activities, and encourage other friends and family members to do the same.
  • Seek legal advice. There are many legal maneuvers that can help protect a senior’s assets, such as invoking a power of attorney, setting up a revocable trust, naming a fiduciary, and more. Talk them over with your loved one and a good lawyer.
  • Team up. If one person is responsible for managing a loved one’s finances, ask for periodic updates with other trusted friends or family members to share ideas and increase transparency.
  • Report it. If you are seeing signs of abuse, contact your local police department and Adult Protective Services in your state. Or call the U.S. Justice Department’s National Elder Fraud Hotline at 833-372-8311.

Keep in mind. None of this is easy. Family dynamics are always complicated, and you obviously want to respect your elders’ pride and privacy. But if they can no longer protect themselves, that job may fall to you. It’s an act of love and loyalty, and we hope this article helps you to be prepared. 

Open communication. Keep an eye on caregivers. Discuss data security. Report anything suspicious.

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