Financial exploitation and seniors
Financial exploitation impacts an estimated five million seniors a year, with only one in 25 cases reported to authorities, according to the National Center on Elder Abuse. It costs America’s seniors an estimated $2.6 billion each year.
Financial exploitation is a difficult crime for senior citizens to recover from. A majority of seniors live on a fixed income, and have no way to recoup lost funds.
“Older individuals may be targeted merely because they possess more assets, such as savings, annuities and retirement accounts, stocks and bonds, insurance policies, and property than younger people. Those with cognitive impairments, mental health conditions, or physical disabilities may be dependent upon others (family members, friends, formal and informal caregivers, or court appointed representatives) for assistance in making financial decisions or carrying out daily transactions, and therefore may be even more vulnerable to theft, exploitation or undue influence,” according to the National Center on Elder Abuse.
Seniors can be financially exploited in several ways. A family member serving as caregivers is one way. The family member will either manipulate the elder through threats or violence into giving him or her money, or the family member will obtain power of attorney and abuse the power. One way to avoid abuse of power of attorney is to have several trusted people oversee a senior’s finances. Having several people in charge of finances provides some oversight, but it should be several trusted people. Family members who steal from their elder relatives typically have a drug and/or alcohol problem coupled with a lack of employment.
Another way seniors can be financially exploited is through a hired caregiver. In this situation, a senior is living alone, with family members either having little time to provide caregiving to the senior or they live far away from the elder family member. With many seniors living on fixed incomes, they may hire a stranger out of the classifieds or hire a stranger they’ve befriended.
Such is the case of a Cherokee County woman who hired a woman to help with the care of her husband with Alzheimer’s disease. Marjorie Thaggard had $12,000 stolen from her in 2009. Her hired caregiver, Michelle Price Phillips, pled guilty to one charge of uttering a forged instrument in the case. She is currently on 60 months of probation for the crime and ordered to pay restitution.
In Thaggard’s case, checks were stolen and cashed by Phillips, according to Thaggard, which is pretty typical. A good way to prevent such theft (and theft by family members) is to secure all financial documents in a safe or other secure location where only the senior has access. Financial documents to include are checks, financial account numbers, debit and credit cards, Social Security numbers and other documents with personal information.
A third way senior citizens can be financially exploited is by strangers. Scammers target the elderly because they can be lonely, trusting or living with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia (making them even more vulnerable to scam artists). An elderly widow in her 80s, living alone in Jackson County, recently experienced a loss of $23,000 to scam artists. She exhibits signs of dementia and wired money over a two-week period, thinking she was paying taxes and fees on a monetary prize. Unfortunately, scam artists who target seniors in such a manner operate in several states and in foreign countries, making it difficult for law enforcement to investigate.
There are several ways seniors can avoid becoming a victim of scammers:
Put phone numbers on the Do Not Call list (1-888-382-1222 or www.donotcall.gov);
No matter what the scammer says, do not make an immediate financial decision. Scammers count on an immediate reaction or decision. Ask for time to think it over or get the information in writing;
Consult a trusted family member or financial advisor before making a large purchase or home repair, and don’t allow someone to pressure or intimidate into an immediate decision;
Do not give personal or financial information out to anyone who calls. Banks do not call or email asking for account information. Utilities do not call to warn people of an immediate disconnect;
Remember, if an offer seems too good to be true, it probably is.
For more information about financial exploitation, or elder abuse in general, call the 30th Judicial District Domestic Violence-Sexual Assault Alliance Elder SAFE hotline at 1-866-496-5406 or visit the National Center on Elder Abuse’s website at www.ncea.aoa.gov.
Kim Gardner is the Elder SAFE Program Coordinator with the 30th Judicial District Domestic Violence-Sexual Assault Alliance. The Alliance is an award winning, innovative, nonprofit program. The Alliance serves the 30th Judicial District which includes the seven westernmost counties of North Carolina: Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Haywood, Jackson, Macon and Swain.
Founded in 1998, the Alliance is a coalition of local and regional agencies serving victims of domestic violence, dating violence, stalking and sexual assault. Alliance members include: domestic violence-sexual assault agencies, regional mental health providers, legal aid services, the Office of the District Attorney, county sheriffs and police.
The mission of the Alliance is to enhance the capacity of communities to respond effectively to incidents of domestic violence, dating violence, stalking and sexual assault, centering on victim safety and holding abusers accountable.