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Elder Financial Exploitation

elderly woman on phone

To con artists, down-on-their-luck relatives, or opportunistic acquaintances, they are gold mines. Individuals over the age of 50 control 70% of the country’s wealth, and seniors between the ages of 65 and 74, with an average net worth of $1.06 million, have more assets than any other age group.

“That’s where the money is,” says Jay Haapala, AARP associate state director of community outreach in Minnesota. “If college kids had a bunch of disposable income lying around, criminals would be trying to figure out how to scam college kids.”

Dementia, disability, and decline can make it even easier for criminals. All told, it is a problem that costs American seniors billions of dollars every year.

Common forms of exploitation

There are myriad scams, unethical businesses, and unscrupulous individuals preying on seniors all the time. While the details vary, there are a few familiar scenarios.

Breach of trust  –  The vast majority of elder financial abuse—as much as 90%, according to the National Adult Protective Services Association—is committed by caregivers or close family members. A son is added to a checking account to help manage Mom’s bills and then starts using the account to pay off gambling debts. Or Grandpa gives valuables to the housekeeper and eventually—at her suggestion—names her in the will.

Phone scams  –  Someone calls, ostensibly from the IRS, saying that an individual has a tax bill that is going to rise with interest and fees unless paid immediately. Or someone calls with news that there is a problem with a credit card and they need a Social Security number and birth date to access account information to clear things up.

Phishing scams  –  As more seniors head online, they grow more susceptible to phishing scams. Phishing emails look as though they come from legitimate sources such as banks or credit card issuers. They ask seniors to click on a link to enter account information in order to verify recent transactions or to rectify problems with accounts. Unfortunately, the links are fake, and criminals use them to gather personal account information, which they use to drain accounts or steal identities.

So, how do you protect yourself and your loved ones from elder financial abuse? One thing you can do is sign up on the Do Not Call Registry. This prevents businesses from contacting you. Those that do come through either don’t know what they’re doing or don’t care. “Either way,” says Haapala, “you should not do business with them.”

Haapala also reminds seniors to conduct their personal business within the financial services system. Financial institutions have fraud protection services that limit an individual’s risk. They also have systems that make it possible to trace funds back to criminals in some instances.