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The Legal Consequences of Elder Fraud Can Be Steep

Scams are on the rise, but there are ways to fight back

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Dobrila Vignjevic / Getty Images

Financial exploitation comes in many forms, and older adults are often the victims.

Picture this: An isolated adult’s friendly neighbor offers to help with household chores and bills. She runs errands and does the shopping, perhaps borrowing a credit card to go to the store. She has extra house keys made because it will be helpful in case of an emergency. The neighbor makes sure that bills are paid — but needs access to the checkbook to do it. Meanwhile, the same friendly neighbor is using that “borrowed” credit card to do her own shopping, and writing checks for her dental work and cellphone bill out of the checkbook. She has added her name to bank accounts and even taken the victim to an attorney to draw up new legal documents — documents that will leave a significant inheritance to her, of course.

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Romance scams are on the rise, too. Older, lonely or heartbroken adults are common targets. In Florida in 2020, $40.1 million was stolen from victims who fell prey to a crime ring or bad actor posing as a potential suitor. Some people lose their whole life savings in a matter of months.

Myriad other financial crimes are carried out by fraudsters — phony investment scams, phone and gift card scams, lottery scams, Medicare and Social Security scams and more. There’s no limit on how creative those who wish to steal can be.

Financial exploitation by a family member

Sometimes, the exploitation comes from those closest to us. Family, friends and caregivers are not immune from skimming a little money here or there for their own purchases, using their care partner’s assets irresponsibly, manipulating their estate plan or just brazenly stealing large sums and thinking no one will notice. More often than not, if the victim knows the exploiter, it is a family member.

We’re not talking about small sums of money in most cases. The average amount lost per victim is $34,000. When a person is acting as a fiduciary (this means they use a legal document, like a power of attorney or trust, to access someone’s finances), the number skyrockets to $83,000. The older the victim, the greater the average amount of stolen assets.

Legal penalties getting stricter

The law takes these crimes seriously, and the penalties for elder exploitation are becoming more severe. Every state, territory, commonwealth, the District of Columbia and the federal government all have elder abuse laws that address exploitation. These laws vary from state to state, so the procedures and punishments will vary accordingly.

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No matter where it occurs, when it comes to cutting off fraud and exploitation, time is of the essence. As soon as exploitation is suspected or confirmed, action should be taken. There will be statutes of limitations (laws that say how long the authorities have to charge someone with a crime). Assets are more likely to be recovered and given back to the victim if they can be located before they’re spent. And if the person being exploited is in advancing years and impaired, their health or cognitive ability may decline rapidly. They may lose memory of what transpired or become a poor witness, so it’s best to move as quickly as possible.

Injunctions or restraining orders to halt the scammer from doing more harm can be put in place by a court. A court might issue an injunction even before the suspect gets away with the scam; it may be enough to just have evidence that the scammer is about to exploit someone. It also may order the scammer to stop contact with a person, return property, transfer possession of property, freeze accounts, put a hold on credit lines and so on.

Penalties for exploitation (or attempted exploitation) of an older adult range from a first-degree to a third-degree felony, with lengthy mandatory prison sentences. There may be other punishments for the wrongdoing, in addition to prison time and restitution. Now, in Florida, a person who has scammed, neglected, abused or exploited an elderly or disabled person will not be allowed to inherit from their estate when they die. The fear of forced disinheritance may be enough to deter some from taking advantage of a vulnerable person and their money

Exploitation, in all its forms, happens far more than we know because victims and families do not report it. When you suspect you or a loved one has fallen prey to a scam or fraud, resist the urge to assign blame or judge the situation. Manipulators and criminals are good at what they do and often go unnoticed. If the red flags are waving, get organized, be proactive and move forward to help hold wrongdoers accountable.

Amanda Singleton is a recipient of's national Caregiving Visionary Award and serves caregivers across their life span through her law practice. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Taking Action

When exploitation is suspected, you can take steps to assist authorities with their roles in investigating and prosecuting the perpetrator.

  • Use the elder resource road map and call your state’s elder abuse hotline for guidance.
  • Talk to the victim, who may not know about the exploitation.  
  • Notify the authorities and follow their instructions.
  • Assemble your caregiving team by circling in trusted contacts, family members and friends. 
  • Notify financial advisers who may be able to put a freeze on accounts.
  • Gather records (medical, facility and prescription) that provide the earliest record of when a victim began to experience cognitive decline or impairment.
  • Document the victim’s interactions with the suspect (did the suspect make any promises or encourage the victim to give them money?). Hang on to all documents the suspect gave the victim, like insurance applications or investment flyers. If the victim can make a recorded or written (and signed) statement about what happened, capture it now.  
  • Talk to all witnesses to interactions between the suspect and victim and have them write down their recollection and sign it. Keeping excellent notes of the possible wrongdoing or manipulation will be of use to detectives and prosecutors.
  • Make notes that will help investigators identify the suspect (physical description, make and model of their vehicle, etc.).
  • Meet with an attorney who can discuss your legal options regarding guardianship or conservatorship if the victim lacks capacity to handle their own affairs and determine ways to have the suspect removed as power of attorney, guardian or trustee.​
3 Ways Older Adults May Be at Risk of Financial Abuse

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