Financial abuse of elder Americans is considered by some to be “the crime of the century” since it amounts to as much as $30 billion per year in losses and, statistically, few culprits are ever held accountable. One study found 37% of seniors are affected by abuse over any five-year period, which can result in them skipping meals or medications to compensate for the shortfall or, worse yet, losing their homes. Given the sheer numbers of baby boomers aging and living longer, not to mention folks over 50 controlling more than 70% of the nation’s wealth, we can only expect this trend to surge—increased dementia rates follow longer lifespans.
Like most victims of con artists, senior citizens are often too embarrassed to report the crime or, due to cognitive impairments or other illnesses, are unable to do so. Further complicating the problem and increasing the likelihood it will go undiscovered is the unfortunate reality that most perpetrators are close family members, neighbors, or friends. Additionally, our increasingly technological society, and the ability to handle most any financial transaction without ever entering a bank, make it easier for grifters to steal a senior’s identity and facilitate fraudulent transactions.
In the first part of this series, we’ll discuss risk factors that increase the likelihood a senior will be targeted for abuse and the telltale signs something is amiss. In Part 2, we’ll examine some mechanisms and strategies for thwarting such abuse before it can occur.
Key Risk Factors
- Isolation: Rates of depression, loneliness, and anxiety are particularly acute among seniors and the desire for companionship can often cause the elderly to lower their guards or overlook what may be glaring red flags to someone else. Perpetrators of these crimes are often aware of that vulnerability and are keen to exploit it. Those most at risk do not have relatives living nearby or close friends to check on them regularly. Relatedly, a family member or friend that causes the isolation by refusing or limiting access to others should be viewed with suspicion—lack of access to others increases the transgressors’ ability to unduly influence their victims by decreasing potential interference.
- Memory Loss or Cognitive Impairment: Building on the last point, cognitive decline is a natural component of the aging process and few of us live into our golden years as sharp at 90 as we were at 30. For that reason, seniors who become easily confused and are reliant upon caregivers they trust for their daily needs are particularly susceptible to undue influence and manipulation from those who otherwise present themselves as having the senior’s best interests at heart.
- Physical Limitations and Frailty: Older individuals often don’t have the strength or mobility to handle chores or other maintenance issues at their homes. They may also have difficulty cooking for and cleaning themselves. Dependence on others, and the fear of abandonment without needed support, can cause seniors to fear challenging questionable conduct they would otherwise find objectionable.
- New Friends and Love Interests: Whether it be online, through the local church, or scouring the obituaries in search of newly-minted widows and widowers, perpetrators know how and where to find seniors. Relatives should be suspicious of sudden new companions, particularly when combined with spending less time with family and established social networks (see isolation above).
- Questionably Doting Relatives: According to a report from the New England Journal of Medicine, “Perpetrators are most likely to be adult children or spouses, and they are more likely to be male, to have a history of past or current substance abuse, to have mental or physical health problems, to have a history of trouble with the police, to be socially isolated, to be unemployed or have financial problems, and to be experiencing major stress.” When afforded unlimited access to a senior, absent gainful employment or other responsibilities, wolves in sheep’s clothing appear in the countenance of caretakers that “only want mom or dad to be comfortable and looked after in their final years.”
- Confusion or Fearful Behavior Regarding Finances: Seniors, particularly those with cognitive impairments, may articulate (perhaps unartfully) concerns they have regarding the establishment of a new trust, purchase of an annuity, changes in their will, etc. when in the company of someone they trust. While dementia can cause delusions, including misconceptions regarding finances and assets, any time a senior raises concerns regarding fear or confusion associated with a recent transaction (particularly when done at the behest or instruction of a caretaker) due diligence should be performed to investigate the particulars.
- New Financial Behaviors and/or Spending: Anything from sudden loans or gifts to the purchase of expensive or luxury items by a formerly frugal senior should sound alarms that something could be wrong.
In the next part of this series, we will examine what can be done to prevent or stop elder abuse. Very often, it is difficult or impossible to recover pilfered funds once extracted from an unsuspecting senior. Safeguarding those assets and preventing abuse is crucial. After all, even if the culprit is arrested and the assets are ultimately returned, the gears of justice turn slowly and rarely in time to support the rightful owner who needs those assets for their support. If you suspect the financial abuse of an elder, please call the Adult Protective Services division of the Department of Social Services in your area or an elder abuse hotline. A link to resources in all fifty states can be found here.
If you need assistance in protecting a loved one from elder abuse, please call us at (704) 457-1010 for help with guardianship proceedings and fiduciary litigation. For more information regarding our firm, attorneys, and practice areas, please visit our website at www.lindleylawoffice.com.