Financial Elder Abuse: Something We Don’t Talk About But Should

Let’s start with a definition. Under Ohio’s definition, “financial elder abuse,” sometimes referred to as senior exploitation, is the unlawful or improper act of using an adult or an adult’s resources for monetary or personal benefit, profit, or gain when the person obtained or exerted control over the adult or the adult’s resources by deceptive or fraudulent means. Common examples of financial elder abuse are:

  • Cashing an elderly person’s checks without permission
  • Using ATM cards without permission
  • Forging a signature on a check, title, or legal document (will or trust)
  • Tricking an older adult by telling them money is needed for college or bail
  • Deceiving or coercing an older adult into signing any document, such as a contract, will, etc.
  • Unauthorized sales, such as jewelry or vacation home
  • Telemarketing scams, which can involve exaggerated claims about investment returns, scare tactics and other fraudulent acts to get seniors to send someone money or credit card information
  • Using a power of attorney to benefit oneself rather than the older adult who granted the authority

According to Consumer Affiars, more than 3.5 million older adults fall victim to financial elder abuse each year, with an average loss of over $30,000… tallying total losses in excess of $3 billion! The number of victims may well be considerably higher, as these numbers reflect what is actually known. Unfortunately, a large number of seniors remain unaware that the financial abuse is taking place, while others are unwilling to report it out of embarrassment or fear for their safety.

It’s possible that you suspect that an elderly family member or loved one is being subjected to some form of financial abuse. Here are a few signs to look for:

  • Sudden changes in bank account balances or banking practices
  • Adding a new name on a bank signature cards
  • Being accompanied to the bank by an unknown person
  • Being accompanied to the lawyer’s office by an unknown person, or perhaps even a family member who has appeared seemingly out of nowhere recently
  • Sudden changes to a will, trust, power of attorney, or other financial documents
  • Unexplained disappearance of funds or other valuable possessions that the senior can’t explain or refuses to      discuss (perhaps out of fear)
  • Sudden transfer of assets to a family member or someone outside the family that the senior can’t or won’t explain
  • The senior receives substandard care or accumulates unpaid bills even though there are enough financial resources available
  • Discovery of a forged signature for financial transactions or the titles of the senior’s possessions
  • Provision of “services” to senior that do not seem to be necessary

Sadly, financial elder abuse is often perpetrated by the senior’s own family. Abusers also include predators, such as people professing to have fallen in love with the elderly person or marketing themselves as personal caretakers. 

Among the most popular scams today are the “Grandkid Scam” and the “Love Scam.” 

The “Grandkid Scam” works like this: the senior gets a call: “GramGram, I need money for bail.” (Or a medical bill, broken down car, etc.)  The caller says it’s urgent and tells the senior to keep it a secret. Scammers are good at pretending to be someone they’re not.  They can even use information from social networking sites, public information databases, or even by hacking email. And they’ll pressure the senior into sending money before they have time to think.

The “Love Scam” works like this: The senior meets someone on an online dating site. Soon, the scammer wants to move off the dating site to email or phone calls. The scammer tells the senior he loves her, but he lives far away — he’s a business man or in the military.  The he asks for money, maybe even pretending it’s to buy a plane ticket to visit the senior. Or emergency surgery. Or something else that’s always urgent.  Scammers – male and female – make fake dating profiles, using stock photos or photos of other people.  They will build a relationship before they vanish with the senior’s money, often tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Financial elder abuse can be more subversive as well.  Unscrupulous business owners often take advantage of the elderly by charging more for services, recommending unnecessary services, or taking money up front for services that are never provided.

As attorneys, we have a duty under Ohio law to report abuse, neglect or exploitation to the local authorities.  We have to be vigilant as planners in spotting these issues that don’t always seem obvious.

What about you? Do you look out for these things for your parents, neighbors, aunts and uncles? If not, shouldn’t you?  And if you see something, even if you don’t have a duty to report under Ohio law, don’t you think you should?

To learn more about financial elder abuse, or to report it, visit the Department of Justice’s Elder Justice Initiative website.

If you want to learn more about how you can properly delegate authority and oversight in your own estate plan, we encourage you to talk with a Certified Elder Law Attorney or a Board Certified Estate Planner in our office. Just send us a note. Let’s Talk!

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