Over the past few years, a disturbing trend has come to light regarding our nation’s growing senior population: Elder financial abuse and exploitation have become more widespread, with new cases increasing by the day. According to AARP, senior fraud accounts for nearly $3 billion in losses each year — and that number is expected to grow.1 The New York Times noted that 10,000 people will turn 65 every day over the next decade, which means more elders will be susceptible to financial abuse in the coming years.2
Unfortunately, the full impact of this epidemic remains largely unknown. One of the greatest concerns for this age group is that most cases of abuse, especially those related to finances, are not reported. Typically, financial losses are related to situations involving physical or mental abuse (or both). And what’s worse is that the perpetrators are often people the senior wouldn’t expect — in fact, many cases of abuse involve “trusted” confidants such as relatives, friends, advisors and others.
Time and time again, these cases go unrecognized because the victims are unaware that the financial abuse is occurring. And when they do become aware, they’re often embarrassed and prefer not to bring it to the attention of others. Both The New York Times and Financial Planning disclosed numerous stories like this — many of the victims didn’t report the abuse they endured because they were wary of bringing legal ramifications against close relatives and family members.
The possibility for fraud increases as technology advances, and as technology usage among seniors becomes more prevalent. Studies show that a new case of identity fraud arises every two seconds3 — and more than half of Americans age 65 or older use the internet or email every day.4 Therefore, not only does technology open up another outlet for identity fraud, as a whole, but it can also put seniors and their financial information at greater risk.
As fiduciary advisors, we’re very aware of the risks our aging clients face, and we make it a priority to communicate with them regularly. Across the board, trusted advisors who have long-term relationships with aging clients need to be attentive to situations where a client is struggling to manage their finances and may be vulnerable to abuse.
Beyond the advisory community, policymakers are also taking action — for instance, in 2010 the state of Washington enacted a “pause law” that allows advisors to defer transactions in situations where they suspect a client is being abused. According to AARP, other states are joining the movement and enacting stronger laws and penalties for cases of elder abuse; even the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) believes it needs to provide more protections at a national level.5
Risk Factors and Warning Signs
So how exactly can you detect this type of abuse, and what can you do to stop it from happening? There are several warning signs that could raise a red flag. In cases where a senior has caregiver relationships with family members or others, some warning signs may include:
— A caregiver who is preventing the senior from communicating freely or meeting with their financial advisors.
— A caregiver or senior who is requesting withdrawals for suspicious amounts — this may signal that the caregiver is coercing the senior into making withdrawals against their will.
Beyond caregiver interactions, other warning signs include:
— Unusual bank or custodian/brokerage account activities.
— Unsolicited investment/business opportunities or coercion into “pyramid” schemes.
— Changes to legal documents, including beneficiary designation forms.
It’s critical for seniors, family members and advisors to engage in open, honest communication at all times. One of the biggest challenges for family members or advisors who observe abuse is simply broaching the topic. Generational differences, along with cognitive issues like dementia, may spur conflict or complicate the conversation. Cognitive issues, in particular, can reduce a senior’s capacity to understand or manage the nuances of their finances, which increases the risk of financial exploitation.
In general, seniors may feel vulnerable and embarrassed when confronted with the situation — or worse, they may have been threatened and are worried about speaking up. Taking all of this into consideration, it’s extremely important for seniors to have a relationship with a financial advisor who can act as a fiduciary on their behalf and as a resource they can trust.
Not only do all consumers need to be vigilant about protecting their identities, but it’s also important for family members and trusted advisors to be proactive in communicating with and monitoring our nation’s seniors as they age. By being alert and taking action when necessary, you can help your loved ones protect the savings and financial standing they’ve worked years to build.