Fraud and Exploitation among the Elderly

By Jeff Salter

October is Fraud and Financial Exploitation Awareness Month, and though everyone is at risk of fraud and financial exploitation, seniors are at a higher risk of victimization. As someone who has spent their career providing care for seniors, as well as someone who has beloved family members who are seniors, I am particularly disturbed when elders are victimized in any way. However, seniors often find themselves in perilous situations regarding their finances. We have all heard heartbreaking stories of seniors losing their entire retirement savings to treacherous criminals, begging the question: Why are seniors at an increased risk for fraud and financial exploitation and what can be done to help them?

Seniors Prone to Fraud

Since founding Caring Senior Service in 1991, I have noticed some commonalities that likely lead to elevated risks of fraud and financial exploitation of seniors.

  • Many seniors live with varying levels of social isolation which make them more apt to pick up a crooked telemarker's phone call, or answer the door for a shady "repairman."

  • Older generations have an ingrained sense of propriety, which can result in a reluctance to end a phone call or conversations with a potential scam artist.

  • Aside from societal contributors, science also plays a role in older adult's susceptibility to fraud. UCLA researcher Shelley Taylor found that the area of the brain that processes risk and subtle danger in older people is less active. This means that as we age, we are less adept at detecting visual cues in others that give us clues to untrustworthiness, such as a disingenuous smile, or an averted gaze.

Unethical criminals have also noticed these traits in the elderly, which means they specifically target them in endless scams. It seems that multiple factors, and predators who are very aware of these factors, lead to the prevalence of fraud and financial exploitation of seniors.

Helping Seniors Avoid Fraud

Helping families struggling with long-distance caregiving has been a goal of Caring Senior Service since our beginning in 1991. To make that mission a reality, we made sure that all our staff were screened and ensured that individuals with a criminal history would never work with one of our clients by implementing national background checks for all employees.

We have always advised clients to make sure they secure their valuables and to contact us with questions about financial matters so that we could put them in touch with a professional financial advisor, an elder law attorney, geriatric care manager, or a bank trust officer.

At Caring Senior Service, we have a zero-tolerance policy for any type of abuse of the elderly and are happy to support this month of awareness. We have always provided safety assessments to our clients as a part of our in-depth consultation process, which includes questions designed to reveal possible risks for those living alone or vulnerable to abuse. 

We would like to share some of our best practices with members of the senior care community and families with the hope that we can all help keep our elderly safe from fraud and financial exploitation.

Best Practices

  1. Identify individuals who are vulnerable to abuse, including elderly living alone, elderly without relatives living nearby, elderly without extended families, and elderly with dementia or other limited capacities.

  2. Create a screening questionnaire or flyer to provide to high-risk clients that help them identify risks and provides solutions and education if they find themselves in an uncomfortable situation.

  3. Perform an inventory. While this may seem controversial, documenting their items and providing the list to family or other trusted individuals allows for proof in the event something is missing and protects all parties involved. It also helps identify high-risk situations so plans can be made to reduce the risks, such as the use of a safe or safety deposit box.

  4. Offer to make a video or take pictures of the home. Have those pictures or video stored in a secure online location that can be accessed by trusted individuals.

  5. Conduct regular check-ins with the elderly client and be sure to ask important (though sometimes uncomfortable) questions:

    • Has anyone (known or unknown to you) asked for any money or to invest in a business or idea?

    • Has anyone asked to provide service to you that you did not solicit?

    • Have you noticed anything out of the ordinary in your home, missing items, or items moved?

    • Has anyone been allowed access to your home or rooms in your home?

    • Do you have any concerns that someone has had access to your home or rooms in your home?

  6. Speak to extended family members about any concerns you may have about the elderly client’s risk. Remind them to be aware and know a few common signs of fraud and exploitation:

    • Changes in personal financial situation

    • Unusual or large withdrawals and/or transfers for accounts

    • Unpaid bills or new bills from unknown vendors

    • Unwillingness to discuss questionable transactions

  7. Remind any staff that you have identified the client as a high-risk client. This helps to remind everyone involved that you are paying attention to the needs of the client and discourages anyone from making a bad decision.

  8. Educate family members and clients on technology available to seniors, such as services that intervene when telemarketers call, and online services that monitor financial account activity.

At Caring, in addition to our screening and background checks, we make sure every caregiver is aware of our zero-tolerance policy and conduct regular in-services with our staff. This regular reminder is an additional way for us to make sure our caregivers understand the important role we all play in keeping our clients safe. We find that talking about the subject of fraud, exploitation, and abuse to all those involved, help reduce anxiety and heightens awareness. This awareness reduces the overall risk and puts our clients and staff at ease to say something when they see something.

If you suspect that fraud or exploitation has occurred, please contact your local Adult Protective Services agency, the state attorney general’s office and file a local police report. In addition, the National Center on Elder abuse can provide additional guidance on how to investigate and seek justice for fraud and financial exploitation of the elderly.

Tags: Finances