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Not only can the elderly be vulnerable to physical abuse, but they also can be financially abused. The prevalence of incidents of elder financial mistreatment by a family member is 5.2%. For every documented case of elder financial exploitation, 44 went unreported, according to a New York state study.

Here’s how financial exploitation affects the elderly and how to spot the warning signs.

What is elder financial exploitation?

According to the New York State Department of Financial Services, elder financial exploitation is when another individual illegally or improperly uses an elderly adult’s funds, property, or resources. This can take many forms including scams, abuse by trusted individuals, and predatory products or services aimed to the elderly. Those with disabilities or who rely on others are also targets.

You should be on alert for signs of theft, fraud, misuse of a person’s assets or credit, or use of undue influence to control an older person's money or property. Updates in technology have made it difficult for the elderly to know who to trust.

Who is at risk?

Exploitation schemes are aimed at the vulnerabilities in the elderly. Some risk factors are:

  • The most vulnerable to abuse are between the ages of 80 and 89.
  • Most abused older Americans are women.
  • A significant number of individuals have cognitive decline or cognitive incapacity.
  • Elders are at higher risk if they live alone are isolated from their communities, rely on others for care, or have a limited social relationship.

What are signs of diminished financial capacity?

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, the common signs include:

  • Forgetfulness: This results in the failure to perform financial responsibilities.
  • Declines in management skills: This results in less ability to use a checkbook and other financial tools to carry out everyday transactions.
  • Arithmetic mistakes: This results in less ability of everyday math skills including using change to pay or when calculating tip in a restaurant.
  • Confusion: This includes a loss of understanding about elementary financial terms used.

What are the warning signs of financial abuse?

Some signs of financial abuse include:

  • Unusual activity in an older person’s bank accounts, including large, frequent, or unexplained withdrawals.
  • ATM withdrawals by an older person who has never used a debit or ATM card.
  • Changing from a basic account to one that offers more complicated services the customer does not fully understand or need.
  • Withdrawals from bank accounts or transfers between accounts the customer cannot explain.
  • New “best friends” accompanying an older person to the bank.
  • Sudden non-sufficient fund activity or unpaid bills.
  • Closing CDs or accounts without regard to penalties.
  • Uncharacteristic attempts to wire large sums of money.
  • Suspicious signatures on checks, or outright forgery.
  • Confusion, fear, or lack of awareness on the part of an older customer.
  • Refusal to make eye contact, shame, or reluctance to talk about the problem.
  • Checks written as “loans” or “gifts.”
  • Bank statements that no longer go to the customer’s home.
  • New powers of attorney the older person does not understand.
  • A caretaker, relative or friend who suddenly begins conducting financial transactions on behalf of an older person without proper documentation.
  • Altered wills and trusts.
  • Loss of property.

How should elders protect themselves?

The elderly should:

  • Plan ahead to protect your assets and to ensure your wishes are followed.  Talk to someone at your financial institution, an attorney, or financial advisor about the best options for you.
  • Shred receipts, bank statements and unused credit card offers before throwing them away.
  • Carefully choose a trustworthy person to act as your agent in all estate-planning matters.
  • Lock up your checkbook, account statements and other sensitive information when others will be in your home.
  • Order copies of your credit report once a year to ensure accuracy.
  • Never give personal information, including Social Security Number, account number or other financial information to anyone over the phone unless you initiated the call, and the other party is trusted.
  • Never pay a fee or taxes to collect sweepstakes or lottery “winnings.”
  • Never rush into a financial decision.  Ask for details in writing and get a second opinion. 
  • Consult with a financial advisor or attorney before signing any document you don’t understand.
  • Get to know your banker and build a relationship with the people who handle your finances. They can look out for any suspicious activity related to your account.
  • Check references and credentials before hiring anyone. Don’t allow workers to have access to information about your finances.
  • Pay with checks and credit cards instead of cash to keep a paper trail.
  • Feel free to say “no.” After all, it’s your money.
  • You have the right not to be threatened or intimidated. If you think someone close to you is trying to take control of your finances, call your local Adult Protective Services or tell someone at your bank.
  • Trust your instincts. Exploiters and abusers often are very skilled. They can be charming and forceful in their effort to convince you to give up control of your finances. Don’t be fooled – if something doesn’t feel right, it may not be right. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

What to do if you suspect financial abuse

  • Talk to elderly friends or loved ones if you see any of the signs mentioned here. Try to determine what specifically is happening with their financial situation, such as a new person “helping” them with money management, or a relative using cards or credit without their permission.
  • Report the elder financial abuse to their bank, and enlist their banker’s help to stop it and prevent its recurrence.
  • Contact Adult Protective Services in your town or state for help.
  • Report all instances of elder financial abuse to your local police—if fraud is involved, they should investigate.

What to do if you’re a victim of financial abuse

  • Talk to a trusted family member who has your best interests at heart, or to your clergy.
  • Talk to your attorney, doctor, or an officer at your bank.
  • Contact Adult Protective Services in your state or your local police for help.

The information in this article was obtained from various sources not associated with Adirondack Bank. While we believe it to be reliable and accurate, we do not warrant the accuracy or reliability of the information. Adirondack Bank is not responsible for, and does not endorse or approve, either implicitly or explicitly, the information provided or the content of any third-party sites that might be hyperlinked from this page. The information is not intended to replace manuals, instructions or information provided by a manufacturer or the advice of a qualified professional, or to affect coverage under any applicable insurance policy. These suggestions are not a complete list of every loss control measure. Adirondack Bank makes no guarantees of results from use of this information.