Financial fraud is the fastest growing form of elder abuse. Financial elder abuse happens when someone illegally or improperly uses a vulnerable senior’s money or other property. With an estimated cost of $3 billion per year, these crimes are difficult to combat because they often go unreported. The good news is that most states now have laws in place to help victims and to punish the scammer. Here are a few types of the most common financial fraud scams and some warning signs to help you spot foul play.
Who are the scammers? And who is most often scammed?
The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) recently did a study that outlined the characteristics of the most vulnerable targets for financial fraud. These victims are usually more vulnerable because they have more expectations of honesty in the marketplace, and they are less likely to take action when defrauded. What’s more, they are often physically isolated, mentally or physically disabled and not as adept at handling their finances.
Financial scammers often pose as someone trustworthy in the lives of their victims. They could be a telemarketer or tradesperson, or they could have a personal relationship with the people they target – such as friend, caregiver, doctor, lawyer or accountant. It should be noted that family members who engage in financial abuse often have a root cause such as gambling or substance abuse, also considered a “desperation” crime.
The challenge with catching financial scammers is that they often possess paperwork that appears to make their siphoning of money or property legal – such as power of attorney. They also often have detailed means of covering their crimes through documentation and records.
Profile of the most common financial scammers:
- 51% are strangers
- 60% are males between the ages of 30 and 59
- 40% are females between the ages of 30 and 49
- 34% are non-strangers (family, friends, business acquaintances)
Most vulnerable victims:
- Women living alone between the ages of 80 and 89 are the most frequent victims
- Elderly person living alone or who recently lost a spouse
- Mentally or physically disabled elderly person who may be physically isolated
To help illustrate the type of crime and potential scammer and victim profile, here are some examples of elder financial fraud, some of which are right in our backyard:
John Shull, a 82 year-old widower signs over his home in Naples Park, all of his CDs, a recreational vehicle and other personal items to Isabel Muse, who he befriended during his wife’s terminal illness. Ms. Muse, a professional criminal, embezzled the funds to support her gambling addiction (Source: NaplesNews.com 08/04/2011).
A Collier county Judge rules that Alma Teti, a family friend of Ellis and Velta Hanson, took advantage of Mr. Hanson, who has Alzheimer’s Disease. Teti accepted lavish champagne dinners, $85,000 in jewelry and more than $1,000,000 in checks (Source: NaplesNews.com 07/23/2011).
Marie and Cliff Long lost $1,300,000 when a court-appointed guardian charged them $15,000 per month for companion care.
A New York lawyer steals $300,000 from 98 year-old, semi-retired lawyer who needed an office to tend to his clients. The perpetrator forged his signature and cashed out several CDs.
Here are some tips to minimize your risk of elder fraud:
- Work closely with your financial advisor or attorney to plan ahead and protect your assets and ensure your wishes are followed.
- Safeguard your personal information. Never give information such as a Social Security Number, account number or other financial information to anyone over the phone unless you initiated the call and the other party is someone you trust.
- Consult with your financial advisor or attorney before signing any document, especially if it’s one that you don’t fully understand.
- Don’t leave checkbooks, wallets or other sensitive personal financial documents out in the house.
- Be sure to check references before hiring anyone to do work in your home.
- Avoid using cash, and pay with checks and credit cards so that you have a paper trail of your transactions.
Finally, the key to identifying financial abuse of someone you know is to look for changes in their usual financial patterns. Withdrawals from bank accounts that they can’t explain, unpaid bills that are usually paid, ATM withdrawals when the person doesn’t usually use an ATM card and unusual activity in their accounts are warning signs.
Following are some key resources for additional information if you are a victim or suspect that someone you know is a victim of elderly abuse:
Florida Office of Financial Regulation (FINRA)/ www.finra.org
Research a potential investment opportunity (1-800-858-3792)
Form ADV, Part II
How to Report an Actual or Attempted Fraud:
To report Medicare-related fraud: HHSTips@oig.hhs.gov
Senior Medicare Patrol Program Hotline: 1-866-357-6677
Get Involved/Volunteer Opportunities:
Florida Attorney General’s Office www.seniorsvscrime.com
Sources of information in this article were provided by the following research:
National Fraud Information Center
Met Life Study of Elder Financial Abuse, June 2011
Naples Daily News
Collier County Sheriff’s Office
Florida Attorney General’s Office
Federal Trade Commission
American Banker’s Association
American Association of Retired Persons (AARP)