As our parents’ age climbs up, so does the number of people willing to prey on them. The natural effects of aging can make your aging parents vulnerable to financial abuse. Read on to recognize the signs!
Elaine’s 87-year-old mother Maryann defies the stereotype of a frail elderly woman. She lives independently, plays the piano at the local church group, goes on week-long camping trips with her friends and organizes block parties in the neighborhood. And yet, Elaine worries about her mom. It seems every week there is a news report about a fraudster who swindled an aging person out of his life’s livings. Mom does not seem to be the type to fall prey to such schemes… Or is she?
The topic of elder financial abuse is a difficult one. As quality of medical care, nutrition and health choices improve, our parents are living longer and remain independent well into their 80’s and even 90’s. That is wonderful news, except when the inevitable effects of their aging make them susceptible to lies by unscrupulous individuals. Because of our parents’ independence, it isn’t always possible to know that something untoward has happened, and many families don’t find out about the fraud until it has gone on for years.
What can you do to keep your hand on the pulse while still respecting your parents’ independence?
First, learn the signs.
- Apparent confusion about financial transactions is a big one. I am not talking about the garden variety forgetfulness along the lines of “I don’t remember where I left my glasses” – that happens to all of us, regardless of age. However, if Mom or Dad do not recall having authorized a large payment or don’t recognize a signature on a check, it’s time to ring the bell. Perhaps this is an early sign of mental decline, but it could also be a red flag for financial fraud.
- Financial behavior that is out of the ordinary. On one side of the spectrum, it might look like usually lavish decisions, such as a new car or an expensive vacation bought on credit (or as a result of a “lottery win” – see below). It may also show up as electrical services being turned off for non-payment.
- Valuable items go missing. Maybe it’s a violin or a painting that has been in the family for generations.
- Excitement about good fortune that seems too good to be true. Maybe your parents just “won a sweepstakes” and all they have to do is pay $2,000 to cover the taxes. Or maybe they got a call from a “Social Security agent” about an upcoming increase in their monthly check if they can just confirm their Social Security number and date of birth.
- Unexpected house repairs and maintenance. It is not uncommon for traveling con men to use the pitch along the lines of “We are in your area anyway, so we can replace your roof / fix your landscaping / coat your driveway really cheap”.
- Large payments being made to a “charity” that you have never heard of.
The common theme here is to be on the lookout for anything that looks unusual or does not pass the 2-second sniff test.
Second, encourage your parents’ interest in activities and community.
One of the major reasons elders fall victim to financial schemes, fraud and abuse is their isolation. In that sense, Elaine’s mom Maryann is a good example of healthy community involvement and an encouraging sign. When family and friends aren’t there regularly to serve as a social safety net, it is easy for a scam artist to step in, gain trust and swindle your parents out of their money, home and valuables. Sometimes, a fraudster may even try to isolate the elder individual further by turning them against friends and community groups.
Finally, stay involved.
Elder financial fraud can come from a variety of directions. It could be a complete stranger calling with a telemarketing scheme, an unscrupulous salesperson with the latest high-return-no-risk investment idea, or even a trusted caretaker. Despite its wide-spread nature (surveys show that elder financial abuse affects 1 in 20 seniors), only 2% of elder financial abuse cases are ever reported according to the National Adult Protective Services Association.
What is the best thing you can do to protect your loved ones? Stay involved and maintain a trusting relationship with them. In many cases, elders are reluctant to admit that they have been scammed because of embarrassment or a desire to not get someone else in trouble. If you suspect foul play, talk to your parents to get to the bottom of what happened. Make sure that they are working with a professional team that includes a financial planner, a CPA and an attorney – so that they can consult someone they trust any time they need advice.
Finally, know your resources on this subject. Unlike child abuse, complaints and reports of elder financial abuse are not handled by a nationwide government-run agency. Some states recognize financial abuse of a vulnerable person as a stand-alone crime, but not all states do (Texas does not; you can check the scorecard for other states).
That being said, stealing and fraud are still crimes. If you suspect a problem, your best bet is to work with a multidisciplinary team of law enforcement, bank officials, Social Security and other agencies that may be affected. There is also the National Center for Elder Abuse that can help you find local resources.
In summary, know the signs, stay involved and encourage your parents’ active involvement in the community. That is a recipe for staying safe and living a fulfilled life at any age!
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