A Top Risk Factor for Senior Financial Exploitation Is Often Overlooked

Financial elder abuse is a huge, yet underreported, problem today. Experts estimate that seniors are bilked out of more than $36.5 billion every year.

Senior man with piggy bank

Seniors are tempting targets for crooks. They may own their own homes, have a nice nest egg, and have good credit. They may be more trusting, and ashamed to report a crime if they're victimized. Dementia raises the risk considerably. And, says a study from Wayne State University, seniors who are lonely are especially vulnerable.

Loneliness, experts tell us, is distressing and emotionally painful for members of our socially oriented species. Loneliness raises the risk of heart disease, dementia and even death. Some common changes of later life—such as the loss of a spouse, health challenges and memory loss—may reduce the social circle of elders. Lacking a regular social outlet, they may become vulnerable to fake friendship, such as …

  • Con artists selling worthless products, who feign an interest in a lonely senior's life before making their move ... often again and again.
  • Phony charities that play on a senior's heartstrings and the desire to make a difference—yet give little or none of the money to a legitimate cause.
  • "Lonely hearts" confidence scams when a stranger cultivates a friendly or romantic relationship with an elder to induce them to hand over money and assets.
  • A "friendly stranger" who offers to help with financial matters or care tasks, only to drain a senior's bank account or move their money into useless investments.

These skilled swindlers can be very methodic. They often maintain a dossier on senior victims so they'll have personal information at the ready as they create the illusion of friendship. They may exchange or sell information to other crooks once they've established a likely victim.

Sadly, sometimes the swindler is no stranger. Each year seniors are financially exploited by friends, family members or trusted paid professionals. The U.S. Administration for Community Living is set to launch the National Adult  Maltreatment Reporting System, which will collect data on this problem.

Protecting lonely elders

Here are steps you can take to combat this modern epidemic:

Daughter hugs elderly father

First, talk about it. Seniors who have been swindled may hesitate to admit it. They are embarrassed. They fear losing their independence. They even may be emotionally attached to the perpetrator. If your loved one won't confide in you, enlist the help of other family members, or professionals such as a bank manager or attorney.

Second, report it. If you suspect your loved one has been the victim of financial elder abuse, report it to your local authorities or to the U.S. Department of Justice. Your loved one may ask you not to do so, especially if the perpetrator was a friend or family member. Your loved one will need your emotional support at this time.

Third, step in to help your loved one safeguard their money, property and personal information. You or some other trusted person may wish to serve as your loved one's Power of Attorney. Enlist the help your loved one's financial advisor and an elder law attorney.

Fourth, help your loved one enlarge their circle of social contacts. Social contact is a great "inoculation" against being ripped off. Brainstorm with your loved one and other family members if appropriate. What would help your loved one get out more? Transportation to the senior center, social events or faith community? Volunteer opportunities? Special activities for seniors with memory loss? If your loved one lives in an assisted living or other supported living community, talk to the staff about ways to engage your loved one. And don't forget that Facebook and other social media, while not as good as in-person friendships, have been found to reduce isolation and depression in older adults.

One win-win opportunity

Seniors who have been swindled can join advocacy and education groups, such as AARP's ElderWatch, to help other older adults protect themselves. These justice-minded elders provide informative tips and "red flag awareness" for their peers—and, of course, there's nothing more convincing than hearing someone else's cautionary tale! Seniors who participate report enjoying camaraderie and an enhanced sense of purpose.

Source: Kentuckiana Regional Planning & Development Agency (KIPDA) in association with IlluminAge Communication Partners; copyright 2017 IlluminAge