Protecting elderly friends and family members requires keeping your antennae up. It’s about being attuned to red flags and being willing to step forward and question things that don’t seem quite right. And it’s about reminding loved ones about how to keep themselves safe when you’re not there.
Knowing red flags of financial abuse
One of the biggest risks for abuse is isolation. Senior citizens without family or friends nearby to check on them may appreciate friendly strangers who offer to help them manage their daily lives. Keep tabs on loved ones who receive regular visits or phone calls. Ask about what’s new in their lives, including any new and interesting people they see regularly.
If financial matters have always been open to discussion, offer to begin assisting with some money management. According to the Securities & Exchange Commission, a sudden reluctance to discuss such matters may indicate cause for concern. Other red flags noted by the SEC include unusual account withdrawals or wire transfers, drastic shifts in investments, confusion about missing funds, abrupt changes in legal documents (wills, trusts, power of attorney, beneficiary designations), and missing cash or valuables from the home.
Asking about personal finances can be awkward, especially if it’s a topic that has been avoided in the past. Consider broaching the subject by relaying some of your own money worries and asking for advice before segueing into the financial state of a senior.
If your elderly friend or relative relies on assistance from an in-home care professional or from other live-in family or friends, take note of any changes in behavior of those appointed as helpers. Sudden changes in lifestyle – such as a new car that seems extravagant for the individual’s pay scale – may indicate something amiss.
Putting protections in place
While you may not be able to prevent financial exploitation of the elderly fully, there are some practices to put in place to help build a defense. First, ensure that trusted family and friends are keeping in touch. If needed, establish a rotation of individuals who can call or stop by to ensure your loved one’s needs are being met.
Next, offer to help manage some financial affairs if they are becoming cumbersome, and institute some checks and balances for full transparency. For instance, duplicate statements may be sent to you and another trusted individual. Not only can the practice keep everyone accountable, but it introduces another pair of eyes to spot unusual activity.
To simplify recordkeeping and management, encourage your loved one to consolidate assets whenever possible. Fewer accounts and statements will help when reviewing activity for anomalies. Just be sure to pay attention to any fees or penalties that could be incurred, such as by moving assets from a CD before the maturity date.
Also, before a loved one begins to decline in health, whether physically or cognitively, it’s important to ensure legal documents are in order and reflect their wishes. Such documents may include wills and trusts, as well as a durable power of attorney, which serves to appoint someone as the legal decision maker for all financial matters.
Reinforcing best practices for combatting scams
Putting financial safeguards in place can provide some peace of mind. However, scammers can be persuasive and persistent, so talk to seniors about what they can do when you’re not there to lend your support.
A variety of telephone scams have cost seniors dearly. Common scenarios include “IRS” calls demanding back taxes and penalties, grandchildren asking for emergency funds, charities requesting contributions, and sweepstakes companies seeking fees to claim a lucrative prize. Even romance isn’t safe, as the world of online dating has resulted in social media sweethearts ingratiating themselves to demand money.
Remind your loved one never to provide their private information – Social Security number, bank account number, birthday – to someone via an unsolicited call or email. Likewise, they should never send a check or wire money to someone they do not know personally.
Consider developing a script for the elderly to follow to decline participating in any fundraising or prize giveaways. Encourage them to ask questions and not be rushed by the false sense of urgency many scammers apply. If they are in doubt about a caller, have them hang up and call the organization on a publicly listed customer service line to determine if the request was legitimate.
Finally, if the elderly are approached at home by contractors or service personnel who claim they notice a home safety issue that needs immediate attention, discourage them from signing contracts for work without first researching the business and obtaining second opinions. Legitimate contractors will submit bids and provide references.
Reporting elder abuse concerns
Suspected cases of elder financial exploitation can be reported to your state’s Adult Protective Services division, and the National Center on Elder Abuse provides access to resources and community support. Theft should be reported to local law enforcement.
Many instances of elder financial exploitation never get reported, often because seniors feel embarrassed for falling prey or because they don’t want to lose their caregivers. The real shame would be in enabling perpetrators to repeat their crimes.