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How to Detect Elder Financial Abuse: 15 Warning Signs a Loved One Needs Help

By: Marguerita Cheng
Tel: 301-502-5306
Email Ms. Cheng

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Older American adults are at an increased risk of becoming a victim of financial fraud or exploitation and criminals don't want you to know it. An estimated $36 billion is lost to these con artists each year. They gain the trust of our loved ones and use it against them in ways that leave victims emotionally and financially devastated.

A scammer will use bits of information, unknowingly provided by the victim, to create stories that convince him or her that a family member needs money to avoid jail time, that services were provided when they weren't, or that they have to pay taxes on sweepstakes they've never entered. These are just a few examples of the variety of creative ways this growing crime can make its way into the lives of loved ones.

It's important to know how to detect elder financial abuse before a parent or grandparent becomes a victim or to stop it if it's already begun.

What Is Elder Financial Abuse?

Simply put, elder financial abuse is the exploitation of seniors and older adults for monetary gain.

Why is there such a focus on the elderly? Scammers know that older Americans hold the majority of wealth in this country and they are often more trusting and less savvy and aware than younger people. The ultimate win for a scammer is to gain access to the assets or property of senior Americans.

Elderly Financial Abuse by Family Members

We often think that scammers who commit these crimes are hired caretakers, attorneys, banks, and neighbors. Sadly, upwards of 90% of abusers are family members or other persons held in confidence of the victim. Since family members, acquaintances, and even strangers can perpetuate this abuse, it's crucial that you don't dismiss unusual behavior even if the senior quickly dismisses it. Beyond the visible signs of missing property and forged documents, here are a few ways to detect elder financial abuse that might not seem obvious.

What to Look For

While any one action listed here may not, in isolation, confirm the existence of elder financial abuse, their very presence should warrant further investigation by a loved one. The following activities may indicate elder financial abuse has occurred or is happening right now:

Changes in Banking Habits

  1. Bank statements no longer go to the senior's home, and they didn't sign up for e-statements.
  2. Large or numerous bank withdrawals or transfers with little to no explanation from the senior.
  3. Checks written as "extra special" or "early" birthday gifts.
  4. Financial accounts show withdrawals from ATMs in locations that the senior has never visited.
  5. The senior is suddenly unable to pay bills when there has been no change in income.
  6. There is evidence that regular bills are past due, or the senior receives disconnection of service notices.
  7. New or large sums of money sent via wire transfers to other family members or strangers.

  8. New Relationships

  9. The senior has a new relationship that seems "off." This individual often provides rides to the bank or other locations that will require the senior to handle money.
  10. A new acquaintance is instantly considered a "best friend."
  11. A new person has been added to the senior's banking or credit accounts.
  12. The "best friend" is much younger and spends more time with the senior than you would typically expect.
  13. A family member, new "best friend," or other person begins making financial decisions on behalf of the senior when not authorized to do so.

  14. Other Changes

  15. The senior has "lost" critical documents, e.g., a Social Security card, a driver's license, financial institution passwords, legal documents, etc.
  16. Phone records show numerous phone calls from a new phone number.
  17. Your loved one exhibits depression or new unexplained fears.

The elderly individual may be embarrassed, get defensive, resist talking about finances, or not be able to explain changes in their financial situation when asked. Don't let this deter you from following the evidence to wherever it may lead.

Unfortunately, unethical professionals can also be the perpetrators of financial abuse. These people, such as healthcare providers and administrators count on the elderly to pay less attention to overcharging of services, prescriptions for unnecessary medications, and billing for healthcare when none was provided. Family members who review medical billing documents with their elderly loved ones can help stop this type of fraud in its tracks.

How to Stop Financial Elder Abuse

You can stop financial elder abuse by having open discussions with your loved one about your concerns. Understand that he or she may know that they've been a victim and does not want to share what happened or is still happening due to pride or shame. If your loved one refuses to share details, talk to their friends and neighbors to gain more information. If warranted, take the evidence that you receive and report it to the appropriate authorities. This can include the local police and state agencies. Use the National Center on Elder Abuse (NCEA) directory to locate agencies that investigate suspected elder abuse.

Marguerita M. Cheng, CFP®, CRPC®, RICP®, Chief Executive Officer at Blue Ocean Global Wealth, is a Certified Financial Planning Expert with 18 years of experience. Prior to co-founding Blue Ocean Global Wealth, she was a Financial Advisor at Ameriprise Financial and an Analyst and Editor at Towa Securities in Tokyo, Japan. Ms. Cheng serves as a Women's Initiative (WIN) Advocate and subject matter expert for CFP Board, contributing to the development of examination questions for the CFP® Certification Examination. In 2017, she was named the #3 Most Influential Financial Advisor in the Investopedia Top 100, a Woman to Watch by InvestmentNews, and a Top 100 Minority Business Enterprise (MBE®) by the Capital Region Minority Supplier Development Council (CRMSDC).

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