Financial abuse against elderly victims is nothing new, but with an aging population and more access to personal information online, it’s a crime that’s reaching epidemic proportions. Seniors in the U.S. lose about $36.5 billion per year to various types of financial abuse. Too often, scam artists, financial advisers, caregivers and even relatives take advantage of elderly victims’ cognitive decline or memory loss to exploit them financially.
Luckily, many of these cases can be prevented with smart steps on the part of both seniors and their loved ones. While talking money with your aging parents isn’t easy, your vigilance can help protect them from falling victim to this increasingly common crime.
Simply being a regular presence in your parents’ lives can go a long way toward safeguarding them from financial exploitation. It’s far easier to detect signs of financial abuse firsthand. So if you live close enough, visit often – it’ll give you a chance to gauge how they’re doing physically, emotionally and financially. Unpaid bills, excessive spending, or other changes in behavior can all be red flags.
A sad truth is that financial abuse often goes hand-in-hand with physical or emotional abuse.
“It’s really rare that all that’s happening is financial abuse,” said Elizabeth Loewy, former chief of the Elder Abuse Unit in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, who oversaw thousands of elder abuse cases there.
Pay attention to any physical or behavioral changes your parents exhibit. Weight loss, weight gain, sudden anger, a withdrawn demeanor or secrecy about finances can all be signs that abuse is occurring, said Crista Chelemedos, Executive Director of Senior Advocacy Services, a San Francisco Bay Area nonprofit that supports seniors’ rights and access to health care and other services.
If you live too far away for frequent in-person visits, make time for regular phone or video calls. Even better – have a trusted person who lives near your parents check on them and report back to you.
Have difficult conversations
Ensuring that your parents’ financial wishes are documented before dementia or other cognitive issues arise is perhaps the most crucial step toward preventing financial abuse.
That means having tough conversations early and often. Research from Allianz Life reveals that seniors who talk about their finances with a relative, friend or trusted professional are far likelier to take measures to protect themselves from financial abuse.
“The challenge is that as your parents begin to age, you don’t just get to roll in and say, ‘you’re not handling your money anymore,’” Chelemedos said.
“This is an ongoing conversation you need to have,” she said.
Many adult children worry about infantilizing their parents or appearing too intrusive by discussing their finances – but they shouldn’t, Loewy said. She recalled numerous elder abuse cases that could have been averted if the victim’s children had discussed their parent’s future wishes and helped them get their documents in order.
Ask who your parents’ current doctors and lawyers are, whether they have a power of attorney, an estate plan and other financial documents, Loewy advised.
Carefully Vet Professional Caregivers
While the rate of elder financial abuse by caregivers is a relatively small piece of the overall pie, these professionals are in a unique position to perpetrate the crime. Loewy noted that there are “bad apples everywhere,” and there’s no guarantee that the person hired to care for your parent will be one of the good ones.
Still, there are a number of things you can do to help prevent abuse by hired caregivers. For in-home caregivers, it’s generally best to go through a licensed agency that conducts criminal background checks. Ask them about the screening process they use.
Services like Caring.com or Medicare’s Home Health Compare tool allow you to browse consumer reviews of different home health agencies. Referrals from people you know and trust are also highly valuable.
Checking in with your parent after they’ve hired an in-home caregiver is key to preventing any exploitation by this individual. That means “physically being around or having a loved one who can check in without letting the caregiver know you’re checking in,” Loewy said.
Equally crucial is ensuring your parent isn’t sharing financial information with their caregiver. Checks, debit and credit cards and any documents with personal information shouldn’t be easily accessible. While it may be convenient for a senior to hand a caregiver a debit card for groceries or other errands, this is where financial abuse by hired caregivers often starts.
Turn to technology
While the Internet can be a channel to perpetrate scams (from phishing scams to emails from alleged foreign princes) it also offers tools to help guard against financial abuse.
“Technology is absolutely the key for monitoring what’s going on, especially from far away,” said Loewy, who now serves as general counsel and senior vice president for industry relations at EverSafe, a financial monitoring service designed for older adults.
For a monthly fee, EverSafe scans all of a user’s financial accounts daily for suspicious activity based on the account history. (Unlike with most banks, “suspicious activity” in this case could be something as seemingly minor as ordering a new debit card).
Other online tools designed to help users keep track of their money, credit and identity include apps such as BillGuard, which links monitors credit and debit card accounts for any strange activity.
Laura Dixon is a writer and editor for Caring.com, the leading online destination for the more than 43 million family caregivers seeking information and support as they care for aging parents, spouses, and other older loved ones. Caring is focused on giving expert information, tools and reviews on assisted living, senior care services, and in-home care.