Ways to Avoid Becoming a Victim of Elder Financial Abuse
What is elder financial abuse? Simply put, it’s a crime. It is when someone – an individual, company or organization – wrongfully takes a senior citizen’s money, property or other financial resources. There are numerous methods that con artists and criminals use to defraud seniors including scams, predatory lending, or outright theft. According to the MetLife Mature Market Institute (MMI), it’s estimated that up to one million seniors are targeted each year and robbed of more than $2.6 billion annually through various financial abuse schemes. Unfortunately family members and caregivers are the perpetrators in more than half (55%) of all cases of financial abuse. According to the California Bankers Association, some of the more common forms of elder financial abuse include (but are not limited to):
- misappropriating income or assets – obtaining access to a senior citizen’s financial resources (i.e. pension benefit payments, Social Security checks, checking or saving accounts, etc.) and keeping a portion of the money after the check is cashed
- overcharging for services –intentionally charging an unsuspecting or vulnerable senior more for basic care services such as transportation, food or medicine
- obtaining money or property by undue influence, misrepresentation or fraud –manipulating, intimidating or outright threatening a senior citizen into signing over investments, real estate or other financial resources
- improperly or fraudulently using power of attorney or fiduciary authority – fraudulently using legal authority given to him/her to change an elder’s will, borrow money or dispose of assets or income in his/her name
- telemarketing and mail fraud – conning an elder into buying an overvalued or nonexistent product, donate to a fake charity or invest in an illegal or fictitious enterprise
- fake accident ploy – lying to an elder that his/her child has been injured or jailed and then taking money intended for the child’s bail or medical treatment
- pigeon drop –someone claims to have found, or been given, a large sum of money and offers to split it with an elder provides s/he withdraws an amount equal to their portion, from a bank or investment account and give it to him/her, as a sign of good faith
- fake prize claim – telling an elder that s/he has won a nonexistent prize and asking him or her to pay (either by sending a check or providing a credit card number) for taxes, shipping and handling on the item
- unsolicited work – “cold calling” a victim by showing up at his/her door to do work for a promised reasonable fee, however once work is underway the alleged contractor insists the victim pays more than the originally quoted amount to complete the work
- phishing – sending out a legitimate-looking email to try and gather personal and financial information from a senior and then using that information to withdraw money, make purchases, apply for credit, etc.
The good news is that there are steps you can take to protect yourself from being exploited and losing some or a significant portion of your financial resources in the process. Here are some basic tips to avoid becoming a victim of elder financial abuse:
- Get it in writing. Never provide personal information over the phone or online and always get information in writing before making a financial commitment such as a agreeing to have work done on your home or property, co-signing for a loan, withdrawing money or paying unusual bills, etc. Always verify a businesses’ physical or online address before providing payment or personal information – don’t just submit paperwork mailed to you or hit “reply” to an email.
- Assemble a team. You don’t need to manage your finances by yourself. Think through people whom you already know and trust and could potentially play a role on your “financial team.” For example, do you have someone that helps you prepare your taxes? Perhaps you have a family member that is a bookkeeper or accountant? In addition there are credible professionals you may want to consider establishing a relationship with that can help such as the staff at your bank branch, an elder attorney, and financial advisor. They can help reduce the chance of you becoming a fraud victim by alerting you to unusual account activity or reviewing documents to verify their legitimacy.
- Store documents safely. You should keep copies of all important financial documents in safe, organized storage so that you or a trusted loved one has easy access to information you need. You should keep on file:
- copies of investment portfolio updates and transactions
- cancelled checks
- monthly bank account statements
- tax returns you have filed (at least three years’ prior returns)
- a copy of your will
- insurance policies
- bank account information
- Use direct deposit. Have deposits (i.e. Social Security or pension benefits, investment dividends, etc.) made directly to your account instead of having paper checks sent to you which can be lost or stolen.
- Review account statements. When you are paying bills make sure you review your most recent account statements to ensure there are no discrepancies such as bank or investment account withdrawals you do not remember making or authorizing, or charges on a credit card. If you see something unusual contact the bank, lender or account provider to file an inquiry and put a hold on the account or payment. Make note of when you are supposed to receive bills and call your creditor promptly if you don’t receive a bill or statement in the mail when you’re supposed to.
- Be cautious about giving Power of Attorney. When you give someone power of attorney for your finances it is imperative that you know and trust the person you are naming as your agent. A power of attorney document is legally-binding and it can be used to, in effect, “legally steal” your assets (i.e. someone can say they have your legal authority to make decisions regarding your finances that you did not intend for them to make.) Talk with an attorney who specializes in elder law before signing any power of attorney documents and keep a copy of the document in a safe storage place.
- Keep personal information private. Do not give you out personal information to strangers over the phone or in writing either by mail or online. That means not providing your Social Security Number, full legal name, birth date, credit card or debit card numbers, and PINs to people whom you don’t know and could use that information to open accounts or make charges and withdrawals in your name. Remember that it’s not required that you have your social security number or phone number printed on checks. Read documents carefully and online provide the minimum amount of personal information required.
- Don’t hesitate to get help. If you are feeling pressured or harassed to make a financial commitment or if you are concerned that you are being overcharged or discriminated against because you are a senior citizen, contact your local law enforcement to ask for assistance, get a temporary restraining order against the person(s) who are harassing you, and/or file a police report. If you are in immediate danger call 911 or your local police for help. In addition contact the National Center on Elder Abuse at 1-800-677-1116, contact your local Adult Protective Services (APS) or your state attorney general’s office to file a complaint and ask for their assistance. Your local APS office will investigate reports of elder abuse, neglect or exploitation, help you understand your risk and develop a case plan for mitigating that risk. There are also numerous advocacy organizations that can provide help including the National Center on Elder Abuse and the National Adult Protective Services Association.
- Be wary of lending money. Lending to family and friends can be an emotional, and often costly, decision. Decide first if you can afford to lend the money in the event that you are not repaid. If you want to lend someone money it’s best to agree to written terms of repayment and have both parties sign a legal document to that effect. Do not agree to lend money or sign property over to anyone, including family members, for care without having an attorney specializing in elder care review the documents.
There are steps that you can take to help a parent or elder family member or friend avoid becoming a victim of financial abuse:
- observe and ask about any apparent changes around the home such as incomplete renovations, furniture or valuable items missing, the property falling into disrepair, utilities (i.e. heating or air conditioning) not being used, etc. In the same way take note of and ask about sudden new purchases or services.
- pay attention to whether bills are being paid, accounts monitored, taxes paid, etc. If it appears that bills are not being paid or financial “paperwork” is not being completed, that may be a sign of a larger problem in the making.
- ask about sudden new friends or acquaintances, particularly those whom s/he says are inquiring about moving in, taking trips together or making joint financial commitments
- monitor any signs of apparent dementia or mental problems (i.e. disorientation, lack of personal hygiene, paranoia, dramatic change in mood or disposition, etc.) and ask if s/he may need help with some ongoing tasks that might be getting difficult or complicated (such as bill-paying and managing finances)
- talk with neighbors, landlord or your elder’s friends and ask them to keep you appraised of any unusual activity or concerns
- keep a copy of your loved one’s signature (from a letter or card) in safe-keeping so that you can provide it if asked by a bank or financial advisor concerned that someone may be fraudulently accessing your elder’s account(s)
- contact the local Adult Protective Services office where your elder lives to discuss your concerns, learn about your potential options, and file an official report of suspected abuse or exploitation if necessary.