Do you have an older relative or friend who has been acting differently with their money lately? For example, are they:
- fearful or unusually anxious about their finances;
- wiring money to a new friend or contact;
- having trouble paying their bills or are making extra withdrawals of money;
- making abrupt, unexpected changes in their will, insurance or other financial documents; or
- confused about recent financial matters?
These are warning signs that something may not being going well. While there are several possible causes, it may be that they are a victim of financial exploitation.
While anyone can be a victim of financial fraud, older adults are of special concern. Recently the Office of Financial Protection for Older Americans released a report, "Suspicious Activity Reports on Elder Financial Exploitation: Issues and Trends." Financial institutions such as banks and money services businesses must file Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs) whenever something suggests activities such as money laundering, tax evasion, or other criminal activity – including elder financial exploitation. Several of the report's findings are quite disturbing.
First, elder financial exploitation is widespread. It's estimated that 3.5 million older adults were victims of elder financial exploitation in 2017. The average amount lost (by those reported as a SAR) was $34,200. This is a lot of money to lose! In addition, monetary losses were greater when the older adult knew the suspect.
We often talk about being careful with our money around strangers and watching out for stranger con artists. In the report, approximately 50% of the people who stole money (or attempted to steal) were strangers. However, approximately 36% were known people (in 14% of the cases, the relationship was unknown). The biggest category of known people was family (25%), with fiduciary or non-family caregivers only 7% or 4% respectively.
Elder financial exploitation can look very different in different situations. It can be as simple as a family member stealing money from an older relative's checking account. Or, as complicated as a con that involves transferring money from one country to another.
In many cases, financial exploitation involves either wiring money or depositing large sums on a prepaid gift card, and then mailing the gift card to someone. By now most people have heard of the phone scam where a "grandchild" calls for emergency financial help and asks the grandparent to wire money – and says "don't tell mom or dad!" Another heart-breaking scam involves online romances and money wired so that the friend can come visit. If you're ever asked to wire money or send a prepaid gift card, please slow down and talk to a trusted friend before doing so. Con artists are good at what they do, and this can happen to anyone.
But what about when the exploitation is by a family member or someone the person knows? This can be very embarrassing to the victim and they may not reach out for help. If you suspect someone you know is a victim of financial exploitation, you can recruit help for them.
Contact your local adult protective services (APS) agency for help. You can find out how to reach your APS office from the Eldercare Locator at eldercare.acl.gov or by calling 1-800-677-1116. In addition, you can call the statewide, 24-hour Adult Protective Services Hotline: 1-866-800-1409, 1-888-206-1327 (TTY). The people at these agencies can provide a home visit to check on the person's safety. If you have been a victim of financial exploitation, you can call these agencies too.