By Natalie Oyler-Lusco, Macha/PAR
What is elder financial exploitation?
Elder financial abuse or exploitation occurs when seniors are defrauded of their money, either by scammers or even their own family. The concept covers a variety of abusive behaviors and financial crimes and, in some ways, “financial abuse is very similar to other forms of elder abuse in that it can be devastating to the victim and is frequently traced to family members, trusted friends, and caregivers.”[i]
Even healthy and mentally sound seniors are targets for financial exploitation. When impairments such as Alzheimer’s or dementia are tacked on, vulnerability increases exponentially. What’s worse is that the most common perpetrators of financial abuse are seniors’ own adult children.[ii]
What types of scams do bad actors use to defraud seniors?
Scams against elders take form in various ways. Examples include fake investments, alerts of lottery or sweepstakes winnings, fake tax and debt collection, fake charities, identity theft, reverse mortgage fraud, and online romance/catfishing to name a few.
How widespread is the financial abuse of seniors?
Often, when elders discover that they have been victimized, they may feel embarrassed, fearful, or be isolated enough to not report incidents to the authorities, family, or friends. As a result, we can only approximate just how far financial abuse goes. The National Council on Aging estimates that among five million older Americans who are abused every year, “the annual loss by victims of financial abuse is estimated to be at least $36.5 billion” (Get the facts, n.d.).[iii] The Justice Department contends that just one in 44, or less than 3% of financial exploitation cases are ever reported to the proper authorities.[iv] While we struggle to get a clearer picture of the extent of cases of abuse, its significance is evident.
How can we spot financial abuse of seniors?
Although financial abuse is harder to detect, there are still red flags to look out for:
- FI accounts – Be wary of sudden changes to accounts held by elderly customers/members including the addition of account owners.
- Collections calls and past due notices – If a senior is financially sound, but begins receiving calls and letters from collection agencies, it’s a good idea to investigate the cause.
- Opportunistic family members – If previously distant/estranged family members begin to crawl out of the woodwork, it is important to recognize situations in which they may be attempting to defraud their elderly relative.
Further, family members and caregivers should always keep each other “in check.” While relatives are the most frequent perpetrators of financial abuse and misappropriation of property, studies do suggest that “residents in nursing homes and assisted living communities experience abuse at higher rates than older adults living in the broader community.”[v]
How can we work together to ensure protections for elders?
One thing we know for sure is that it takes all of us to put a dent in the plague of elder financial exploitation. In 2002, members of the United Nations convened in Madrid for its Second World Assembly on Aging. Together, representatives from more than 150 UN Member States resolved “to respond to the opportunities and challenges of population aging in the twenty-first century and to promote the development of a society for all ages”.[vi] Although the resultant 79-page report is 20 years old, it contains relevant directives to guide elder justice stakeholders in defending against abuse today, including the need to establish networks of cooperation between government, financial institutions, law enforcement, and other stakeholders to address elder abuse via community initiatives.
Some excellent examples of collaboration include:
- The FDIC and CFPB have collaborated on an educational program for elders called Money Smart for Older Adults, which “raises awareness among older adults and their caregivers on how to prevent financial exploitation”[vii].
- NAPSA (the National Adult Protective Services Association), the CFPB, and other stakeholders have recently joined with Payments Associations to sponsor virtual elder abuse awareness retreats.
How can we raise public awareness of elder financial exploitation?
Since 2006, June 15 of every year has been dubbed World Elder Abuse Awareness Day (WEAAD), an event launched by the International Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse and the World Health Organization.
Per the website of the National Center on Elder abuse, the “purpose of WEAAD is to provide an opportunity for communities around the world to promote a better understanding of abuse and neglect of older persons by raising awareness of the cultural, social, economic and demographic processes affecting elder abuse and neglect.”[viii]
As professionals in the payments industry, it’s imperative that we collaborate with the greater community to help protect against elder financial exploitation. This requires networks of stakeholders from the national to local levels in a commitment to fight elder fraud, including financial institutions, CFPB, NAPSA (the National Adult Protective Services Association, law enforcement, and government agencies. If your organization would like to get involved in your area, a great place to start is the following lists of adult protective agencies nationwide.
Nationwide resources for elder abuse prevention
State-by-state adult protective agencies (including territories)
[i] Hafemeister, T. L. (2003). Financial abuse of the elderly in domestic setting. In R. B. Wallace & R. J. Bonnie (Eds.), Elder Mistreatment: Abuse, Neglect, and Exploitation in an Aging America (pp. 382–445). National Academies Press.
[ii] Smith, K. A. (2021, November 9). What is elder financial Abuse—And how do we prevent it? Forbes Advisor. https://www.forbes.com/advisor/personal-finance/elder-financial-abuse/
[iii] Get the facts on elder abuse. (n.d.). National Council on Aging. https://www.ncoa.org/article/get-the-facts-on-elder-abuse
[v] Hawes, C. (2003). Elder abuse in residential Long-Term care settings: What is known and what information is needed? In R. B. Wallace & R. J. Bonnie (Eds.), Elder mistreatment: Abuse, neglect, and exploitation in an aging America (pp. 382–445). National Academies Press.
[vii] FDIC. (n.d.). Money Smart for Older Adults. Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. https://www.fdic.gov/resources/consumers/money-smart/teach-money-smart/money-smart-for-older-adults.html