Protecting Your Loved One Against Elder Financial Abuse

June 14, 2019

Written by Hannah Babcock, Fraud and Records Manager

Young Woman And Grandmother Looking At A Tablet Together

Across the United States and in our regions of southwest and central Virginia, financial abuse of  older adults has become a dangerous—and endemic—trend. In 2017, over 60,000 cases of elder financial exploitation were reported nationwide to the U.S. Treasury Department. Not only was that a 19 percent increase over the previous year, it was also likely to have been a low-ball figure, since many such cases may go unreported. For older adults, falling victim to financial fraud can lead to loss of financial security, increased or total reliance on government assistance, and even the loss of their home. If you have older loved ones that you watch out for, here’s what you need to know about elder financial abuse.  

What are some common types of financial abuse against the elderly?

Fraudsters commonly target the elderly with scams that include:

  • Romance scams: The fraudster forms a “romantic” relationship with the elder, then “borrows” funds or asks the elder to take out a loan on their behalf. 
  • Email/phishing attempts: the fraudster sends an email or message to the elder that asks for personal information—often through a fake website that imitates an actual, legitimate company or organization. 
  • Family fraud: The fraudster impersonates a family member and asks the elder to send them money.
  • Charity scams: The fraudster solicits donations from the elder for a fake charitable organization. 
  • Lottery scams: The fraudster calls, messages, or emails and claims that the elder has won some type of lottery—but to collect the winnings, the elder must first pay “fees and taxes” in advance. 
  • IRS scams: The fraudster calls, messages, or emails the elder and poses as an IRS agent, either asking for personal information or claiming that the elder owes money to the IRS.

Do not send money! Be extremely suspicious if your loved one has been asked to send, wire, transfer, or withdraw funds via Western Union.

How do fraudsters target the elderly?

Fraudsters often connect with the elderly through social media or other networking sites. Their ideal candidates predominately tend to be widowed, divorced, or in a troubled relationship. Using what they’ve found on social media and/or any other readily available public information, the fraudsters begin to “work” their relationships with the targets as they watch to see what opportunities develop.  

What are the signs of elder financial abuse? 

If you have an older loved one, be aware of these red flags: 

  • A lower-than-normal bank account balance, or money missing from accounts. 
  • Significant withdrawals from bank accounts. 
  • Unusual use of a credit card.
  • Maxed out lines of credit. 
  • Multiple new loan accounts being opened. 
  •  Unpaid bills.
  • Disappearance of personal possessions or household items. 
  • Changes in demeanor or moodiness. 
  • A rapidly developing romantic relationship. 
  • Be suspicious of a romantic interest that develops quickly, especially if your family member has never met that person face-to-face. 
  • Be aware of common spelling and grammatical errors in emails or messages.
  • Be very suspicious if the person your loved one is corresponding with asks them to send money, ship property to a third party, or mail anything to another country. 
  • Stories about being in the military and lacking support or services are usually far from reality

If your loved one tells you that they are in a relationship with someone they’ve met online, remember:

  • Be suspicious of a romantic interest that develops quickly, especially if your family member has never met that person face-to-face. 
  • Be aware of common spelling and grammatical errors in emails or messages.
  • Be very suspicious if the person your loved one is corresponding with asks them to send money, ship property to a third party, or mail anything to another country. 
  • Stories about being in the military and lacking support or services are usually far from reality

If it sounds or feels too good to be true, it probably is.

What should you do if you suspect an elderly adult is being financially abused?

  • Contact your local branch of Adult Protective Services.
  • Report fraud to your local authorities. 
  • Report fraud to the Federal Trade Commission(FTC) at spam@uce.gov.
  • Report theft to the Internet Crime Complaint Center(IC3). 
  • Appoint a different agent as Power of Attorney if another family member is exploiting your loved one. 
  • Canceling and replacing debit and/or credit cards.
  • Resetting online banking credentials. 
  • Placing a warning on accounts. 
  • Setting up automated fraud alerts. 
  • Shutting down accounts and opening new ones. 

Contact your loved one’s financial institution and ask what kind of fraud protection they offer. Depending on how much personal information has been compromised, you may consider:

  • Canceling and replacing debit and/or credit cards.
  • Resetting online banking credentials. 
  • Placing a warning on accounts. 
  • Setting up automated fraud alerts. 
  • Shutting down accounts and opening new ones. 

Keep in mind, once funds have been wired, they cannot be retrieved.

What are some ways to help protect older family members from being financially abused?

  • Contact your family member’s financial institution and ask what kind of fraud protection they offer—for example, automated fraud alerts.
  • Add a trusted joint owner to the elder’s account. 
  • Ask your loved one to request an annual copy of their credit report and share it with you, so you can ensure that everything looks the way it should. 
  • Shred any unneeded documents containing personal information—such as bank statements, receipts, and junk mail offers—for your loved one.
  • Help your loved one keep checkbooks, unused credit and debit cards, and any sensitive personal information locked up or in a secure location
  • Consult a trusted family attorney or financial advisor for suggestions on the best financial options for you and your family member. 
  • Advise your loved one to be careful with the information they’re sharing over the internet. Remind them to be suspicious of people they’ve never actually spoken to or met face-to-face. 
  • If your loved one has started an internet-based relationship with someone, check that person out. Do some research to verify what your loved one has been telling you about this person.
  • TRUST YOUR GUT!