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The signs and symptoms of senior financial abuse

Eileen Beal

CLEVELAND, Ohio — Despite the hit their savings and investments took during the Great Recession, Americans between 70 and 90 are still the wealthiest age group in the United States. Not surprisingly, they are also prime targets for financial exploitation and abuse.

“It’s all their assets — a mortgage-free home, steady income from Social Security or a pension, investments — that make them a target,” said attorney Page Ulrey, a senior deputy prosecuting attorney for the King County Prosecutor’s Office in Washington.

Prime targets

According to experts, prime targets are:

•    Women, most often between ages 80 and 89;

•    Men who have recently lost a spouse or partner;

•    People who live alone and may require some help with either health care or home maintenance;

•    People who are lonely and vulnerable; people are especially at risk during the holidays.

In addition, financial exploiters target those with diminished mental capacity and decision-making ability, stressed Lori Stevic-Rust, director of senior services at Lake Health System, in northeast Ohio.

Stevic-Rust, a nationally recognized psychologist and author of four books, is often called in to evaluate the mental capacity and competency of at-risk seniors.

“They target them,” Stevic-Rust added, “because their ability to pay attention, process information, analyze situations or figure out what the long-term consequences will be for a given action is significantly impaired.”

She went on, “Even when they know the day and year and can perform simple activities in the home — prepare a meal for instance — they aren’t able to make important decisions or judgments or carry out complicated activities that involve many steps.”

Spotting the signs

The majority of exploiters and abusers are strangers: telemarketing scammers going after credit card or Social Security numbers, paid caregivers or “sweethearts” — con artists who prey on lonely elders.

After that, it’s friends, neighbors or family members — most often a son or son-in-law. Then it’s unscrupulous professionals — accountants, financial planners, bankers, lawyers, physicians, contractors, etc. Many have histories of drug or alcohol abuse or have gambling or other financial problems.

Studies have also shown that ethnic elders are especially vulnerable to financial abuse.

Those fighting financial exploitation and abuse say it’s all about MOM: Motive (money, jewelry, property — sometimes even sibling rivalry); Opportunity (unrestricted — and unobserved — access to a victim); and Means (the ability to use their trusting or family relationship to charm, cajole, coerce or outright steal from their victim).

Financial abuse of older adults has become so rampant that when the U.S. government created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), it designated a special Office of Older Americans to deal with the issue.

The CFPB office’s goals: track down and expose scams; ensure laws currently on the books are enforced; and educate seniors and those who care about them to identify, avoid and report financial scams.

Prevention: always the best remedy

Financial abuse is a crime, so it’s surprising that while more cases are being reported, few abusers stand trial and go to jail.

According to Page Ulrey of Seattle’s King County Prosecutor’s Office, “Those who are being abused are often dependent on their abuser for their care and don’t want to [take them to court] because of the repercussions it would cause. Or they fear they will be sent to a nursing home. Or they fear — or love — the offender.”

Frequently, too, she said, “They are ashamed to admit that they have been taken advantage of.”

Ulrey stressed that it is often difficult to prosecute exploiters. That’s not only because of the reasons mentioned above, but also because the victim has died or is so cognitively impaired he or she cannot testify. To keep a vulnerable relative or loved one out of harm’s way, concerned friends or family members must be proactive. The earlier deterrents and roadblocks are set in place, the better, she said.

One time-tested strategy for keeping financial abusers at bay, Ulrey said, is for an elder’s friends and family members to stay connected. “Financial abuse and exploitation occurs in the shadows, where people are isolated from those who could spot the signs that something isn’t right,” she said.

Stevic-Rust emphasized that it’s important to become hyper-vigilant in observing a vulnerable senior’s physical health and cognitive state. “Declines in both can make them vulnerable to manipulation and exploitation,” she explained.

Those assisting the at-risk person should help him or her get information about exploitative situations, schemes or scams they may encounter and to become better educated about their finances.

It would also be valuable to help the senior consult with legal or financial professionals who can draw up such documents as trusts, limited powers of attorney or conservatorships. “These can, and for the most part do, deter financial exploiters,” Ulrey said.

If you suspect someone is being financially abused, it is important to report your concerns to local authorities. The National Adult Protective Services Association’s website (www.napsa-now.org) lists adult protective services departments in every state.

“This site doesn’t just have the telephone numbers for reporting financial abuse, they take anonymous tips too,” said Executive Director Kathleen Quinn.

If all else fails, you may be able to file for a protection order. “This will limit the contact the abuser has with their victim — and perhaps protect assets, too,” Ulrey said.


Eileen Beal, a Cleveland-based writer on issues in aging, wrote this article for “Today’s Caregiver Magazine” with the support of a MetLife Foundation Journalists in Aging Fellows program, a program of New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America.