Financial abuse is the improper or illegal use of someone else’s money, assets or property. Unfortunately, the elderly are often targets of this type of fraud.
According to the AARP, as many as 1 in 5 older Americans are victims of financial abuse, with thousands more experiencing it each day.1 And those figures are probably low. The Department of Justice reports that for every case that gets reported, another 43 go unreported because the victims are embarrassed, fear retaliation or aren’t aware that a scam occurred.2
So how can you tell if someone you love is being exploited? Look for these signs:
1. A noticeable decline in their standard of living
If your uncle starts forgoing his weekly lunch with his buddies because such expenses “aren’t necessary,” your normally stylish mom has not been to the hairdresser in months, or your foodie neighbor’s fridge is empty, someone else may be spending their money. Frugality is good, but if you notice a loved one is suddenly worried about money or is uncharacteristically unkempt, something else might be going on.
All too often, the person committing financial fraud is someone an older person knows and trusts, like a family member or friend.
2. An overly involved caregiver or new “friend”
Most caregivers are wonderful, thoughtful people who truly care about the people they look after. But unfortunately, there are some bad seeds out there. And all too often, the person committing financial fraud is someone an older person knows and trusts, like a family member or friend.
So pay attention if your dad seems notably nervous around his adult nephew who recently moved in to “keep an eye on things.” Ask questions if your estranged sister insists on speaking for your mom or seems excessively interested in her finances. And be especially wary if a brand-new “friend” has entered the picture and is increasingly involved in financial or health care decisions.
3. An increase in junk mail and phone calls
Many older Americans were raised to be polite and trusting, which, the FBI says, makes them easy targets for con artists.3 When you visit your folks, keep an eye out for junk mail with phrases like “lottery,” “prize” or “last chance offer,” or from unfamiliar charities requesting donations. A constantly ringing phone might be another red flag; scammers who have found susceptible victims often sell their contact lists to other con artists who follow up with “offers” of their own.
4. Impromptu home repairs
Older people are at an increased risk for home repair scams. They often live alone, may have physical limitations that keep them from tackling projects themselves, or might have trouble recalling recent repairs. As a result, they might be quick to say yes when someone knocks on their door and offers to fix their roof, trim their trees or repave their driveway.
If you find out that work is being done on an older person’s house, especially if they never mentioned that the repair was needed, you should investigate further. If you suspect a scam, the AARP suggests calling the police, as many communities have laws against soliciting work door-to-door without a permit.
5. Unusual financial activity
This may seem obvious, but the biggest clue that your loved one might be a victim of financial abuse is a change in how they’re managing their money. If they’ve given you access to their bank records or checkbook, keep an eye out for spending that is out of character or an increase in withdrawals or payments. If they keep their finances private, be on the lookout for bills piling up or confusion about financial matters. And if they’ve mentioned making a change to their will, signing over Power of Attorney or giving someone else access to their bank accounts, ask a lot of questions.
What to do if you suspect abuse
If you believe someone you love is the victim of theft or other unlawful acts (such as a home repair scam), call local law enforcement. Otherwise, the National Council on Aging suggests contacting your state’s Adult Protective Services (APS) program. Every state has one, and the services are confidential.