WHAT IS ELDER FRAUD AND FINANCIAL ABUSE?
Elder financial abuse happens when someone takes money or property from an older person without their knowledge, understanding, or consent. And, it happens every year. Of the reported cases, we know that Americans are losing at least $2.9 billion every year to people who take advantage of them¹.
Elder financial elder is on rise and it’s occurring more frequently every year. Elder fraud and financial abuse may be limited to an isolated attempt to steal money from your account, but can also be a series of ongoing events designed to drain your resources. If criminals obtain your personal financial information, they might be able to drain your accounts or make charges to your credit cards.
Thieves might also commit a crime called identity theft, which is when someone steals personal information and uses it to open new accounts or make transactions in a your name.
The National Committee for the Prevention of Elder Abuse (NCPEA) defines elder financial abuse as a broad spectrum of conduct including:
¹AARP – https://www.aarp.org/money/scams-fraud/info-2019/senate-aging-committee-hearing.html | https://www.aarp.org/money/scams-fraud/info-2019/senate-aging-committee-hearing.html
WHY OLDER ADULTS?
There are many reasons why older adults become targets and fall prey to scammers or thieves. The most common reason is that they are most likely to depend on others, due to disabilities or declining health. But not all scammers or thieves are strangers.
Caregivers, close friends, and other trusted individuals have ready access to their homes, financial accounts, personal information, medical supplies and medications, and they are typically trusted companions who can easily influence an older adult.
FAMILY MEMBERS / CLOSE FRIENDS
Close friends or family members are often to blame. They may:
Service providers may take advantage of older adults. They may:
Many criminals look for older adults to try to exploit or scam them. They might:
Older adults may not realize the value of their assets. This could make them a target for scammers or predators who could offer to buy their homes or possessions for a fraction of what these items are really worth.
Many older adults are not comfortable with technology in general. Criminals could volunteer to help older people set up online access to their bank accounts in an attempt to gain control over their usernames and passwords.
Some older adults have predictable patterns, such as receiving monthly checks or going to the bank on the same day every week. If criminals notice this pattern, they can break into the home while they are away. Also, they could steal the older person’s possessions through strong-arm tactics such as robbery or mugging.
EXAMPLES OF ELDER FRAUD
There are many scams aimed at older adults. Here are some examples that could affect you or a loved one:
TELEMARKETING / PHONE CALL SCAMS
The most common scheme is when scammers use fake telemarketing calls to prey on older people. Older adults make twice as many purchases over the phone than the national average. With no face-to-face interaction and no paper trail, these scams are incredibly hard to trace. Also, once a successful deal has been made, the buyer’s name is then shared with similar criminals looking for easy targets, sometimes defrauding the same person repeatedly.
DIGNITARY LETTER FRAUD
One of the most common financial frauds of all time. The older adult receives a letter, an email, or a fax from a foreign “dignitary.” The correspondence promises huge monetary rewards in exchange for helping an official from a foreign country out of an embarrassing legal problem. All the older adult needs to do, the correspondence states, is to send a small amount of money (in comparison to what he/she will receive in turn) to help out the foreign dignitary. The victim never receives any rich reward and loses the money that is sent.
TECH SUPPORT / INTERNET FRAUD
These scams include a call from someone claiming to be from the technical support department of a large computer company. Or, a pop-up message warns the older adult about a potential technical support problem. The scammers want you to believe your computer is infected with a virus or has a service issue that can be fixed remotely. The criminal either asks you to pay for fake tech support you don’t need and/or they access saved data on your computer, such as names, addresses, account numbers, and other personal information. They use the information to apply for loans, credit cards, or to steal the older adult’s identity.
Phishing is usually a two-part scam involving emails and spoof websites. Fraudsters, also known as phishers, send an email to a wide audience that appears to come from a reputable company. This is known as a phish email.
In the phishing email, there are links to spoof web sites that imitate a reputable company’s web site. Fraudsters hope to convince victims to share their personal information by using clever and compelling language, such as an urgent need to update information immediately or a need to communicate with you for your own safety or security. Once obtained, personal information can be used to steal money or transfer stolen money into another account.
THE GRANDPARENT SCAM
A criminal calls an elder adult and whispers or mumbles phrases designed to get the older adult to reveal a grandchild’s name. Once the criminal has the grandchild’s name, he or she will impersonate the grandchild and claim to need money for an unexpected financial problem (lost wallet, overdue rent, and/or payment for car repairs). Then, the criminal will ask the older adult to wire money to them.
MEDICARE / MEDICAID FRAUD
Medicare’s universal coverage makes it easy for criminals to pose as Medicare representatives and ask older adults to provide personal information.
Many older adults find themselves managing their savings and investments once they finish working. A number of investment schemes are targeted at older adults. Be wary of pyramid schemes and partner schemes that have been a way to take advantage of older adults.
SWEEPSTAKES AND LOTTERY SCAMS
This scam is done by letters, phone calls or emails. The message will say something like “Congratulations! You’ve just won a lottery!”. The criminal will request the victim to deposit a large amount of money into your personal checking account, but you need to wire a portion of the funds to a foreign account to cover various taxes and administrative fees.
COUNTERFEIT PRESCRIPTION DRUGS
Many older adults will shop online to find the best price for their prescription drugs. Criminals could rip them off by providing counterfeit drugs. Not only will the older adult lose the money, but they will receive drugs that may harm their health.
FUNERAL AND CEMETARY SCAMS
There are two different types of funeral and cemetery fraud to watch out for. First, a criminal will read the obituaries or attend a funeral to find the contact information for a widow or widower. Then, the criminal will claim they are owed money and continue to extort the grieving victim. The other scam is done by disreputable funeral homes that increase the already large cost of funeral services and add in extra charges. Both scams usually are perpetrated in person.
You receive a telephone call from what seems to be a legitimate company. The criminal claims there are problems with your account and the company simply needs to verify some information. The caller seems to already have information about you so you feel comfortable sharing additional information.
FRAUDULENT ANTI-AGING PRODUCTS OR PRESCRIPTION DRUGS
Scammers can create fake anti-aging products, medications or remedies that can be worthless or might have toxic substances in them. The danger is that aside from paying money for something that will not help a person’s medical condition, victims may purchase unsafe substances that can inflict even more harm. This scam can be as hard on the body as it is on the wallet.
Criminals ask older adults for money for fake charities. This often occurs after natural disasters.
HOME EQUITY SCAMS
Bad people working in real estate, financial services, or related companies may use reverse mortgage scams to steal equity from the property of older adults. In many of these scams, older adults are offered free homes, amazing investment opportunities, or assistance with foreclosure or refinancing in exchange for their home’s deed.
Know the signs of elder financial abuse. To help protect older family members and friends from financial abuse, it’s important to know what to look for:
- Behavioral changes, such as fear or submissiveness, social isolation, withdrawn behavior, disheveled appearance, forgetfulness, impulsiveness, secrecy, or paranoia.
- Large, frequent “gifts” given to caregivers.
- Large, unexplained and unexpected loans taken out by elders, such as student loans.
- Missing personal property.
- New best friends and “sweethearts”.
- Onset or worsening of illnesses or disability.
- Sudden, atypical or unexplained withdrawals, wire transfers, or other changes in their financial situations.
- Sudden desire to change their wills, especially when they might not fully understand the implications.
- Sudden increase in spending by family or friends.
- Sudden reluctance to talk about finances.
- Transfer of titles of homes or other assets to other people for no apparent reason.
- Utility or other bills not being paid.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Unfortunately, elder abuse is often not reported. There are things you can do to protect yourself or a loved one from fraud or financial abuse. Here are some tips to help you:
ORGANIZE YOUR FINANCES
No matter how old you are, it’s a good idea to update and organize all your financial documentation, including:
- Birth and marriage certificates
- Car titles
- Financial powers of attorney
- Insurance policies
- Pension and trust documents
- Real estate deeds
- Social Security paperwork
Maintaining an organized file and helping others (such as a parent, uncle, or close friend) do the same can make it easier to spot the inconsistencies and red flags that could signal financial abuse.
MONITOR FINANCIAL ACTIVITY
Check your account statements and credit reports regularly to make sure nothing has changed without you knowing. If there are any signs of changes not made by you, contact your bank or credit card company right away.
CREATE A LIST OF FINANCIAL CONTACTS
Bankers, insurance agents, attorneys, accountants, financial advisors, and other professionals should be on your list of financial contacts. Share your list, but not usernames or passwords, with those that help you manage your money such as your financial planner or advisor and family members you trust.
An older person could be at risk for exploitation. Be careful if the individual is unfamiliar with his or her finances, has family members who are struggling financially, or have substance abuse problems. Look for financial mishandling, which can include anything from the use of property or belongings without permission to persuading someone to sign a deed, will, or power of attorney through deception or coercion.
REPORT THE ABUSE
If you think you see a scam, talk with someone. Follow the rule – see something, say something. Help yourself and others by avoiding silence. Keep phone numbers and resources you can turn to, including local police, banks, credit card companies and Adult Protective Services. Then report it to the Federal Trade Commission.
To obtain the contact information for Adult Protective Services in your area, call the Eldercare Locator, a government sponsored national resource line, at: 1-800-677-1116, or visit the Eldercare Website.
There are many resources available to help you with Elder Financial Abuse.
For more information, check out the links below:
National Center on Elder Abuse
State directory of helplines, hotlines, and elder abuse prevention resources
Eldercare locator — find help in your community
A Citizen’s Guide to Preventing and Reporting Elder Abuse (PDF)
National Association of Area Agencies on Aging
National Adult Protective Services Association (NAPSA)