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Harsh Realities Of Financial Abuse

Harsh Realities of Financial Abuse

You or someone you know could become the victim of one of the fastest growing crimes in America – elder financial abuse. Fraudsters are using new tactics to take advantage of retiring baby boomers and the growing number of older Americans, a group that controls more than 70 percent of the nation’s wealth. Financial abuse of seniors is estimated to have cost victims at least $2.9 billion last year alone. That cost, however, is likely much greater because only one in forty-four seniors reports financial abuse and fraud. Additionally, and very sadly, nearly 90 percent of the financial abuse committed against older Americans occurs at the hands of someone they know and trust.

Elder financial abuse is a crime that deprives older adults of their resources and ultimately, their independence. Older Americans who are lonely or isolated, experiencing cognitive or physical decline, or reliant on others for help can be susceptible to scams and fraud. Generally, our heavy reliance on computers, smartphones, and the Internet makes it difficult for seniors to know who to trust and what transactions are safe. 

Everyone should stay alert to financial abuse and exploitation: theft, fraud, misuse of a person’s assets or credit, or using undue influence to gain control of an older person’s money or property. 

You probably weren’t aware that World Elder Abuse Awareness Day is June 15. Now that you know, view it as a reminder for older Virginians and their trusted caregivers to safeguard all personal information and for everyone to learn the common signs of financial abuse. Here are some tips for seniors and their financial caregivers:

 Tip #1   Know the warning signs of scams. Scammers are always thinking of new ways to steal from seniors, so knowing the warning signs of scams will help stop fraud in its tracks. Having to pay fees or taxes for a sweepstakes or lottery prize, any offer that requires immediate action, or a transaction that must be kept secret are characteristics of some types of fraud. When in doubt, talk to a trusted advisor, family member, or friend.

 Tip #2   Protect your financial identity. Some scammers are interested in stealing financial identities to open new credit cards or loans in seniors’ names. Shred receipts, bank statements, and unused credit card offers before throwing them away. Never give personal information, including your Social Security Number, account numbers, or other financial information to anyone over the phone unless you initiated the call and the other party is trusted.

 Tip #3   Choose a responsible financial caregiver. Family members and friends can take advantage of seniors and leave them in financial ruin. Plan ahead for the day you may not be able to manage finances on your own and select a financial caregiver who is responsible with money and is trustworthy.

 Tip #4   Never sign something you don’t understand. Consult with a financial advisor or attorney before signing any document that is unclear or appears suspicious. 

 Tip #5   Always trust your instincts. Exploiters and abusers are very skilled at being charming and forceful in their efforts to exploit you. Don’t be fooled – if something doesn’t feel right, it may not be.

 Tip #6   Talk to a professional at your bank about options to ease financial caregiving responsibilities. Banks offer a wide range of services to help seniors and financial caregivers manage finances in accordance with seniors’ needs and desires. 

To help seniors stay safe, everyone can learn to identify the signs of elder financial abuse. The key to spotting financial abuse is noticing a change in a loved one’s established financial patterns. Watch out for these red flags:

1. Unusual activity in an older person’s bank accounts – including large, frequent, or unexplained withdrawals.

2. ATM withdrawals by an older person who has never used a debit or ATM card.

3. Changing from a basic bank account to one that offers more complicated services the senior does not fully understand or need.

4. Withdrawals from bank accounts or transfers between accounts the older adult cannot explain.

5. New “close friends” offering to accompany an older person to the bank.

6. Sudden account overdrafts or unpaid bills.

7. Closing CDs or accounts without regard to penalties.

8. Uncharacteristic attempts to wire large sums of money.

9. Suspicious signatures on checks or outright forgery.

10. Checks written as “loans” or “gifts.”

11. Bank statements that no longer come to the senior’s home.

12. New powers of attorney the older person does not understand.

13. A caretaker, relative or friend who suddenly begins conducting financial transactions on behalf of an older person without proper documentation or in a secretive manner.

14. Altered wills and trusts.

15. Loss of property.

16. Confusion, fear, or lack of awareness on the part of an older adult.

17. Refusal to make eye contact, shame, or reluctance to talk about the problem.

Talk to elderly friends or loved ones if you see any of these signs. Be patient and kind, and remember that seniors who are caught in these circumstances may feel embarrassed or shamed into secrecy, and in some cases, reluctant to talk about the situation – even if you are a trusted family member. Try to determine what specifically is happening with their financial situation. Report the elder financial abuse to their bank, and enlist the banker’s help to stop it and prevent its recurrence. 

Finally, if you suspect elder financial abuse is happening to a family member or loved one, please report it to your local Adult Protective Services (APS) agency with the Department of Social Services, or call the toll-free, 24-hour APS hotline at 1-888-832-3858. Reports can be made anonymously. It’s important to report all instances of elder financial abuse to your local police. If fraud is involved, the police should investigate, and perhaps other seniors in the community can be spared from financial abuse and misfortune

DeMarion Johnston is currently the general counsel of the Virginia Bankers Association where she provides legal representation to the association and its subsidiaries. She lives in Richmond with her husband and their two school-aged children, along with their two pugs.

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