Just as bullies target the weakest kid on the playground, vulnerable older adults can also be easy targets for abuse. Elder abuse can come in the form of physical, financial, sexual and/or emotional abuse, neglect, or abandonment. Of all the ways an older adult can be abused, financial abuse is the most frequently reported.

In the July 5, 2018 issue of Forbes Magazine the article, Financial Elder Abuse: The Dark Side Of Aging and Finances states “Although massively underreported, financial exploitation is increasingly becoming a rampant form of abuse among aging adults, particularly those with cognitive impairments such as Alzheimer’s disease or other types of dementia. These crimes are now so widespread that elderly financial abuse is often called “the crime of the twenty-first century.” According to the National Adult Protective Services Association (NAPSA), “one in nine seniors has reported being abused, neglected or exploited within the last year, and one in twenty seniors has indicated some form of perceived financial mistreatment.”

Washington State is trying to shed light on the numbers. What is known is that the state has seen a significant increase in crimes committed against the elderly. Elder Abuse Cases on the Rise, in the May 7, 2017 issue of Spokesman-Review, reads “Reports of abuse against vulnerable adults are on the rise in Washington state based on data collected over the past eight years. In 2008, Adult Protective Services received nearly 14,400 reports… but just eight years later, in 2016, the state agency received more than 42,000 reports… Twenty-five percent of the cases were for financial exploitation.”

NAPSA defines financial exploitation/abuse as occurring when a person misuses or takes the assets of a vulnerable adult for his/her own personal benefit. This often occurs without the knowledge or consent of the senior or disabled adult. Such crimes fall into two general categories: fraud committed by strangers, and exploitation by relatives or trusted individuals.

When fraud is committed by a stranger, the victim is misled with the promise of goods, services, or benefits that don’t exist, are not needed, or are misrepresented. When money is requested the senior is often instructed to purchase and send gift cards rather than a check. NAPSA lists many methods used by scammers:

Prizes, Lottery & Sweepstakes scam: Offering a prize once $1,000 (for example) is sent to cover fees and taxes.

Grandparent scam: Caller says grandchild is in jail or lost their wallet or passport and needs you to send money immediately.

Romance scam: Contact made through an online dating site. Trust is built after which the scammer demands money for medical procedures, hotel expenses, visas, etc.

Charity scam: Asking for money to support a cause; common scam after a natural disaster.

Knock on the Door scam: Person posing as a utility worker asks senior to look at something outside, allowing an accomplice to enter home to steal valuables.

Predatory Lending: Seniors pressured to take out unneeded loans or reverse mortgages.

Home and Automobile Repairs: Taking payment and then failing to do the work.

Health, Funeral, and Life Insurance: Selling unneeded or fake coverage.

Telemarketing: Calling seniors to pressure them to buy a product or service.

Internet Phishing: False emails that look like they are from the bank or the IRS.

Identity Theft: Credit cards opened fraudulently.

Medicare scams: Caller wants to “verify your identity” or makes false claim that you are entitled to a “refund.” In both scenarios the scammer asks for your Medicare number and bank information.

The second type of financial abuse happens when the victim has a personal relationship with the scammer. This trusted individual may steal, withhold, or otherwise misuse a victim’s money, property, or valuables for personal advantage. Their methods include:

  • Taking the elder’s money, property, or valuables without permission.
  • Denying services or medical care to keep more funds for the abuser.
  • Signing or cashing pension or social security checks without permission.
  • Using ATM or credit cards without permission.
  • Forcing or pressuring the elder to part with resources or sign over property.
  • Threatening to abandon or harm the victim unless they agree to the demands of the perpetrator.

Seniors are particularly vulnerable to financial crimes because they are likely to have savings and own their home. Seniors are often polite and trusting and find it hard to say “no” or hang up the phone. Other factors include cognitive decline, physical decline, and dependency.

Once a fraud has been committed, seniors are unlikely to report it because they don’t know who to report it to, are ashamed at having been scammed, or don’t know they have been scammed. They may worry that once the scam is discovered a relative may decide that the older adult is no longer able to care for themselves and try to gain control over their finances.

Washington State is responding to this problem. In 2017 the Vulnerable Adult Protection Act was signed into law. It creates a new category of crime for stealing from vulnerable adults, stiffens penalties and lengthens the statute of limitations from three to six years so prosecutors have more time to bring a case to court.

Caregivers who suspect that their client may be a victim of financial or any type of abuse should speak to their supervisors right away. Others may report suspected crimes to Adult Protective Services in their county.