Whether you’ve encountered it firsthand or not, abuse is disturbingly common in the U.S. today. Child abuse, domestic violence, and sexual assault grab most of the headlines, but those aren’t the only kinds of abuse that occur.
Elderly individuals are a highly vulnerable yet silent demographic that are also used and abused. And unbeknownst to much of the population, financial abuse of older citizens is especially common.
It’s your role, as a concerned citizen and/or loved one, to be prepared to identify and address financial elder abuse before it goes too far.
What is Financial Elder Abuse?
“Financial abuse is the theft or mismanagement of an elderly person’s funds, real estate, investments, or personal property,” personal finance blogger Lainie Petersen writes.
“Like all abusers, financial elder abusers perceive the elderly as vulnerable and unlikely to fight back or expose the abuse. Financial abuse can be a one-time incident or it can continue for many years.”
The problem is that financial elder abuse isn’t necessarily easy to spot (especially if you aren’t looking for it). But there are certain signs and symptoms you should be aware of:
- Uncharacteristic financial activity. Has your loved one historically been frugal, but now seems to be blowing through his or her money on things you wouldn’t normally expect the person to purchase? Uncharacteristic financial activity is often a sign that someone else is exerting influence over the individual’s financial decisions.
- Frequent demands for money. Does your loved one tell stories about people asking for or demanding money for various causes and needs? Soliciting money from elderly individuals is a highly suspect practice and should be investigated further.
- Unpaid or overdue bills. Does your loved one have lots of unpaid or overdue bills, despite the fact that you know he or she has more than enough money to make ends meet? This could be a signal of simple forgetfulness, but it could also be a sign that something else is going on.
- Secretive friend or relative. According to the National Center on Elder Abuse, 90 percent of all perpetrators are family members or people the victim knows well (such as a neighbor or caregiver). If you notice that a friend or relative has become especially close to your loved one and likes to interact with the person in isolation, this could be a sign of financial abuse.
Four Steps for Addressing Financial Elder Abuse
If you have reason to suspect an elderly loved one may be a victim of financial abuse, you must act. Here are a few suggested steps:
1. Discuss Your Concerns
The first thing you should do is raise your concerns with your loved one. Depending on the individual’s mental state and clarity, a conversation like this may not be productive. It’s also possible that your loved one has been coerced into becoming a willing participant — so take everything he or she says with a grain of salt.
2. Contact an Attorney
It may be necessary to contact a trust and estate attorney who specializes in deceitful manipulation and financial exploitation. If nothing else, a consultation will help you understand your rights, as well as the rights of your loved one.
3. Keep Meticulous Records
If you have more than just a sneaking suspicion that something is going on — perhaps you’ve seen iffy behavior with your own eyes — make sure to document this. Financial abuse often requires mounds of paperwork to prove, so get a huge head start by archiving anything and everything you observe.
4. Look Out for Other Signs
One form of abuse often turns up in the company of another. Abusers regard their victims as vulnerable and will exploit them in as many ways as they can. Be on the lookout for signs of sexual, physical, or emotional abuse.
Putting it All Together
Because of the silent nature of financial abuse — and the mental state of the victim — it isn’t always easy to spot. But you owe it to your loved ones to be vigilant about what’s happening and to take swift action when you perceive something awry.