Ever since childhood, we've learned about "stranger danger." Nowadays, financial elder abuse is being bandied about as the "crime of the century." Trust is a wonderful thing, but when an elderly member of your family finds that he or she can't trust the same person he or she helped to raise and take care of, it hurts -- a lot. Unfortunately, many trusting grandparents and parents are learning the meaning of betrayal by people they never expected it from.
Financial fraud against an elderly person is most often the result of manipulation by someone close to the victim. It begins subtly; it may even start out with seemingly good intentions, such as an offer of help. Perhaps the bank branch closest to Grandma's house is closed and she doesn't have transportation to the next town over. An offer is made: "I'll stop by the bank on the way home". The pattern is repeated, but the next time, the amount of gas is deducted from the deposit; next time it's a little bit more. Meanwhile, the obliging and supposedly trustworthy helper suggests that the errand would be easier if they were signed on to the account as an authorized user. Grandma is happy; her banking is being done, and there are even a few other errands that are being done for her. Eventually, Grandma finds her funds have all but disappeared and she's one step away from destitution. Even sadder still, sometimes the financial drain turns to threats and extortion before the bottom falls out.
The National Elder Abuse Incidence Study estimated that nearly a half-million people age 60 or older were abused or neglected during 1996. This study determined that for every reported incident of elder abuse or neglect, approximately five incidents were unreported. The growth of all elder abuse cases has grown at nearly double the rate of the senior population over the past 10 years. Each state has laws regarding the variety of elder abuse cases and abuse; abuse in the domestic setting, including financial abuse, and often perpetrated by family, close friends or caregivers, is more difficult to expose and prove. In some cases, the use of force, threat, misrepresentation or excessive pressure, with malicious intent must be clear in order to prosecute the wrongdoer. The sustainable harm that is caused an individual is taken into account and considered more closely than the simple draining of finances.
There are general signs to watch for if you are unsure if your elderly parent, grandparent, friend or neighbor is being abused: the victim may suddenly begin using cheap or inferior products; household possessions may appear to have disappeared; trust issues may unexpectedly arise; an almost fearful dependence on just one or two people may become obvious; unpaid bills may pile up in an obscure corner; a complete withdrawal by the victim from previously normal social situations. When the victim becomes aware that they were duped, they also might lose self-confidence and the ability to be independent. The crime of financial elder abuse is more than just the loss of liquid assets, it steals the feelings of security, trust, and confidence.
If you suspect that your loved one is being scammed by someone they know and trust, talk with them and discuss your concerns, don't be accusatory or demeaning. Let them express their feelings and don't make them feel isolated or alone. If your concerns haven't been assuaged, then you should make a phone call. Contact your local law enforcement, social services or Elder Abuse Hotline and describe the form of abuse. Give as much detail as you can about what is making you suspicious. If what you report appears to be credible an investigator will interview you, your identity can be kept confidential, but the investigator will need to speak to you. Provide the suspected victim's name and location and as much information about the abuser as you may know. If you can provide proof and/or other witnesses, you will make a prosecutor's case stronger in a court of law.
For help in filing a complaint: contact AARP's ElderWatch specialists at 800-222-4444; or call the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau at 855-411-2372, TTY/TDD 855-729-2372.