During Holiday Visits, Discuss Financial Exploitation With Older Relatives

Elder financial abuse … isn't that a downer topic to talk about while the turkey is roasting and everyone is enjoying each other's company?

Actually, experts tell us, the holidays are a very good time to raise the subject. You might be surprised to learn that financial exploitation of elders is at its peak during the holiday season. And with sensitive subjects like this, a face-to-face meeting is best, especially when everyone in the family can participate and offer support and encouragement.

As reported in the June 2013 issue of Caring Right at Home, financial exploitation of the elderly is the illegal or improper use of funds, assets or property of an older adult. This could include outright theft, phony investment schemes, or "lonely hearts" confidence scams when a stranger cultivates a relationship with an elder to induce them to hand over money and assets. Financial exploitation of seniors has been called an epidemic; a Caring Right at Home poll showed that more than half of respondents knew an older adult who had been victimized by fraud.

Financial exploitation costs seniors upwards of $3 billion each year. Says Kathy Greenlee, U.S. Assistant Secretary for Aging, “Financial exploitation is a threat to the health, safety, dignity and independence of vulnerable older adults. This holiday season, we encourage families to spend some time asking older family members some basic questions to ensure that their finances are in good hands and that if there are signs of abuse, that the right steps are taken to stop it."

What are the signs to look for? The National Association of Area Agencies on Aging (n4a) advises families to be alert for:

  • Financial activity that is inconsistent with an older adult's past financial history.
  • Confusion about recent financial arrangements.
  • Changes to key documents that have not been authorized.
  • A caregiver or beneficiary who refuses to use designated funds for necessary care and treatment of an older adult.
  • An older adult who feels threatened by a caregiver or other individual who is seeking to control their finances.

Why does this crime peak during the holidays? Karen Roberto, Director of the Center for Gerontology at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech), explained: "Older adults are particularly vulnerable to financial abuse during the holidays. This might be due to the increase in the frequency of visitors in and out of their homes, money flowing more freely, and distractions that take them out of their normal routines."

Roberto and her team of Virginia Tech researchers offer 10 suggestions to help seniors avoid financial exploitation:

  1. Stay active and engage with others. Isolation increases both vulnerability and the opportunity for victimization.
  2. Monitor your financial affairs. Even if assistance is needed, you or a trusted friend or family member should double-check bank and credit card statements and other financial transactions. It is advisable to use direct deposit when possible and sign your own checks if you are able.
  3. Stay organized. Know where your financial documents are, including wills, trusts and power of attorney. Keep them safe and review annually; update as circumstances change.
  4. Consider appointing a Power of Attorney. Your lawyer can advise you as to whether this will help your directives be adhered to, even if you were to become incapable of stating them yourself.
  5. Be cautious in making financial decisions. Do not allow anyone to pressure you into making a hasty decision. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Never give out your bank account, Social Security or credit card numbers to solicitors.
  6. Protect your passwords. Do not share banking, computer or ATM passwords with others. Notify the company or bank if you notice any questionable charges or transactions.
  7. Beware of telephone solicitations. It is not rude to hang up when an unknown caller tries to talk you into doing something you don’t want to do or buying something you don’t want to buy. Hang up! Then call the National Do Not Call Registry at 1-888-382-1222 to reduce the number of solicitation calls you receive.
  8. Be careful of individuals who may take advantage of you. Elder financial abuse can be committed by anyone. Be wary if anyone pressures you to do something with your money or possessions that you are not sure you want to do (e.g., adding their name to your bank accounts or property titles). Be especially careful of someone who tries to keep you isolated from others. Call a trusted family member or the police if this happens.
  9. Recognize potential financial abusers. Most abusers are very persuasive in convincing the elder of their trustworthiness. Again, never make a monetary decision without talking it over with someone you are sure has your best interests at heart.
  10. Know what to do if you believe you are the victim of financial abuse. Put aside your fear or embarrassment and discuss your concerns with someone you trust, be it another family member, clergyman, bank manager or attorney.

"Unfortunately, financial exploitation is often committed by a person you know and trust, which makes it more difficult," said Sandy Markwood, CEO of the n4a. The n4a recommends that if you hire someone to help you in your home, ensure that they have been properly screened with criminal background checks completed. Ask for certifications when appropriate.

Having the conversation about financial safety isn't always easy. But raising awareness and protecting senior loved ones is a way of showing your love and caring—a valuable holiday gift, indeed.

Learn More

The Eldercare Locator (www.eldercare.gov), a public service of the U.S. Administration on Aging, created the annual Home for the Holidays campaign to encourage families to spend some of their holiday time together discussing strategies to prevent financial exploitation. The National Center on Elder Abuse partnered with the Eldercare Locator to produce a consumer guide, Protect Your Pocketbook: Tips to Avoid Financial Exploitation, which can help inform this discussion during the holiday season.

The Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force (www.stopfraud.gov) offers resources to help seniors avoid elder fraud and financial exploitation.

Right at Home, Inc. is a national organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for those we serve. We fulfill that mission through a dedicated network of locally owned providers of in home care services.