Used and Abused: The Many Faces of Financial Exploitation

As Baby Boomers retire at a rate of 10,000 people per day and the proportion of seniors in the American populace grows at an incredible rate, there is concern that financial exploitation will increase, as well.

Financial exploiters, after all, seem to find seniors an incredibly appealing target.

Seniors often need help of some kind and, for a host of reasons, may be reluctant to ask family members to set aside their own obligations to assist them. The kindly neighbor or caregiver or cab driver, on the other hand, offers help and seems happy to give it. And give it they do, until they begin to take.

The Characters in this Story

While there is likely no “typical” victim, there are certain characteristics that seem to predispose some elderly individuals to becoming attractive targets for financial abusers:

  • Poor health/physical dependence
  • Social isolation
  • Financial independence (they have assets)
  • Cognitive impairment
  • Chronic illness
  • Being female
  • Experiencing difficulties with activities of daily living

The perpetrators of financial abuse also tend to have particular traits:

  • Being a family member, friend or caregiver of the victim
  • They perform some service for the victim
  • They recognize opportunity and rationalize their actions
  • They become the pivotal and important lifeline to the victim

It may come as no surprise that elderly victims of financial exploitation are extremely hesitant about reporting the problem. They likely feel shame or embarrassment for having allowed it to happen and may regard the abuser as the only thing standing between them and a nursing home – without the abuser’s “help”, seniors fear they will be placed in some environment in which they do not wish to live. It’s also important to remember that the abuser may well be a beloved grandchild or other family member, and reporting the abuse feels like a horrible betrayal of that loved one and the family, as a whole.

How It May Begin

People who exploit seniors are not necessarily predatory from the outset. They have some loose connection to the victim – they are the landscaper, the hairdresser, the neighbor, a privately-hired caregiver – and over time, they recognize this customer is a little forgetful, rather isolated, struggling to get along on their own. They offer help, or more help. They see they are easily trusted, welcomed, and gradually afforded access to bank statements and other pieces of important information. It occurs to the would-be abuser that no one else is really involved, that the person before them is clearly needful, and that they are really owed some kind of compensation for the favors they provide.

The abuser’s first job is to establish trust and rapport with the victim, which often comes at the expense of other relationships. Over cups of coffee in the afternoon, the victim may complain that family members are geographically distant or too busy to come around, and the abuser will assure the victim that the family members don’t care very much and that it’s a lucky thing that the abuser is there to help.

And help they do. As trust is built, the help is of a very high caliber. The abuser does everything perfectly and promptly and without complaint. They become absolutely indispensable. They solve problems with confidence and ease, and show a degree of attentiveness that the elderly victim finds irresistable.

Isolation is the Key

Many seniors who fall prey to financial exploiters are already isolated when the abuse begins. It is essential to the abuser that they wall off the victim from others who might ask too many questions or become suspicious of this new or evolving relationship. The more isolated the victim, they more the victim needs the abuser. If there is no one else to call upon for help, the abuser becomes central to the victim’s survival. Many victims understand they are being abused and tolerate it simply because they believe there is no one else to whom they can go.

Once the abuser has won the victim’s trust, they often set about the important task of destroying trust in others, including long-standing service providers like doctors, bankers, attorneys and family members. The abuser may intercept phone calls from family members, tell them their loved one cannot come to the phone for some reason, and then tell the target that their family never calls them because they don’t care. The exploiter will also reinforce the idea that without them and the vital services they provide, the victim will be alone, unloved and next in line for the nursing home.

Protections and Prevention

The sudden appearance of a new and marvelous friend in the life of a senior should never be taken at face value, particularly if this friend is much younger or in some other way an unlikely companion for the senior we know. A sharp drop-off in contact from this senior also represents a warning sign, as do unexplained cash expenditures, replacement of long-time service providers such as physicians and attorneys, noticeable upticks in household expenditures or behavior changes in the elderly victim. Those who fall prey to financial abusers often register a change in overall affect and show a new tendency to be nervous, hesitant or withdrawn.

Long before the ground is laid for abuse, the following protective measures should be taken to reduce the likelihood that your loved one or client will make an attractive target:

  • Carry out a personal property inventory in the house, recording both in writing and via photo/video the contents of the house and where these items are kept;
  • Remove valuables to a safe place, particularly if service providers or others come and go from the house;
  • Place a block on the phone to disenable international calls;
  • Systematize the purchase of household goods – have bills sent to a third-party payer (a bank trust officer or bill-paying service, for example), monitor withdrawals and otherwise ensure that the need for cash in the home is kept at a minimum;
  • Audit the goods purchased – if a large grocery purchase is made, stop by a day or two later and check the pantry and refrigerator. If durable goods are purchased, such as electronics, confirm they made it to the client’s home.
  • If hiring a caregiver, make sure to:
    • Hire from a licensed, bonded agency
    • Interview caregivers
    • Check references
    • Confirm background checks have been conducted and they are clean
    • Remove any remaining valuables from the household
    • Drop by unexpectedly
    • Talk to your client/loved one when the caregiver is not there about the service, the caregiver’s behavior, any requests for “loans” or cash
    • Take seriously any reports by neighbors that people other than the caregiver are coming and going from the house or, worse, living there.

As a professional care management and guardianship company, we have been called upon many times to safely extricate a client from an exploitive situation, sometimes involving more than one abuser. It is a carefully coordinated endeavor. We know with absolute certainty that the abuser will not be happy about the loss of this income source, so delivering the news in a neutral environment, away from the client and while locks are being changed at the home, is part of a necessarily cautious approach.

Financial exploitation can be subtle and relatively small, especially at the onset when the waters are being tested, and it can be expansive, prolonged and particularly egregious. None of it is acceptable and much of it is avoidable. As estate plans are established and care plans developed, an eye toward abuse prevention is essential. None of us want to be cynical about our outlook on care and people who may, in fact, be friendly neighbors, but neither do we want to discover later on that exploitation has taken place on a large scale and without hope for reparation.

© Arosa

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