The Signs, Symptoms and Preventative Measures of Financial Abuse of the Elderly

By Jessica Colton, Elder Law Clinic Student, Spring 2015

It is 3:00 a.m. and an elderly widow is woken by a ringing phone.  Answering,  a man on the other end poses as Canadian law enforcement and claims to have her grandson in police custody.  Telling the drowsy, confused woman that her grandson’s health is in danger, he instructs her to wire $5,000 to the police station for bail. The caller uses the grandson’s first-name and, with great urgency, explains that her grandson’s parents cannot be reached and the situation is dire.  Scared and confused, the elderly grandmother wires the money, while her grandson quietly sleeps in his college dorm room, safe and sound in the United States.  Contacting her son in the morning, the elderly woman learns she has been conned.  Local police cannot trace either the phone number or the account.  The money is gone.

The elderly are frequently the targets of financial scams perpetrated by strangers descending upon their diminished mental capacity and savings via fake charities, investments, home repairs, and even phone scams claiming a family member is in trouble.  Especially susceptible to financial abuse are elderly individuals recently widowed whose deceased spouse previously handled the couple’s finances.  Common are credit scams in which the elderly person, unaware of his or her debts, is persuaded into paying money to a sham company threatening to repossess a car, home, or other valuable asset.  Scammers specifically target elderly widows and widowers by perusing public obituaries that list the elderly individual as a surviving spouse.  Also very attractive to a would-be scammer is a widow or widower who does not have local family, or even any family at all, to care for his or her well-being.

Even more disturbing, financial abuse of the elderly is often committed much closer to home, by the older individual’s family, neighbors, or trusted professionals.  Financial abuse can also be tricky to spot, as it can take many forms.  Fortunately, prudent caregivers and relatives can short-stop financial harm to elderly loved ones by remaining alert for signs and symptoms of financial abuse. As an example, one might take notice that an elderly person’s living conditions are far below his or her financial means, such as going without utilities like cable or heat when funds should be ample to cover basic living expenses.  To a watchful relative or neighbor, this might raise a red flag that funds are being diverted elsewhere and not to the elderly individual’s benefit.  Other indicators of financial abuse include unusual bank activity, such as the taking out of large, unexplained loans, large or frequent gifts made by check or cash to a caregiver, relative, or financial professional, or missing personal belongings of some value.  Attentive relatives will also take notice if an elderly individual seems distant or has lost interest in family activities.  Caregivers or relatives seeking to financially manipulate an elderly individual will often try to isolate the older person from friends and family.  These abusers will manipulate the elderly into holding negative beliefs about family members based on lies or exaggerations, while simultaneously creating positive associations for themselves as saviors with pure intentions or as sympathetic victims in need of financial help.