How widespread is elder financial exploitation? Estimates vary greatly, with studies over the past dozen years reckoning that anywhere from 3.5 percent to 20 percent of older adults have been financially abused, according to a review of research published in the journal Clinical Gerontologist.
But there’s one aspect of financial exploitation upon which researchers and experts in the field agree: The problem is vastly undercounted, because most cases are never brought to authorities’ attention. One oft-cited study by researchers in New York state estimated that only 1 in 44 incidents of elder financial abuse there were reported to Adult Protective Services.
“It’s almost unanswerable how much it’s underreported,” says Laura Mosqueda, M.D., a professor of geriatrics and family medicine at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine and director of the National Center on Elder Abuse.
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A key reason lies in the nature of elder financial exploitation, broadly defined as the improper use of an older person’s money or property by someone they know, such as a hired caregiver, a legal or financial professional, or, most often, a family member. Abuses can range from theft of household items to misuse of credit cards to large-scale fraud involving property and financial accounts.
Why abuse goes unreported
Experts say some victims don’t report financial abuse because they don’t realize or acknowledge it’s happening. This could be due to cognitive impairments, which can diminish an older person’s financial skills and make it easier for an abuser to gain control of their money, or to reluctance to believe a close relative or trusted friend isn’t acting in their best interest.
Financial as well as personal relationships can blur lines. Families have their own cultures when it comes to things like loans, providing help in tough times, or exchanging care for freebies such as room and board or use of a car, says Marti DeLiema, a gerontologist and assistant research professor at the University of Minnesota School of Social Work.
“The thinking [behind not reporting] may be, I’m not going to rock the boat. I don’t want to deal with the repercussions,” she says.
Even when they understand something untoward is happening, people who are being financially exploited are often hesitant to act. They may feel embarrassed, partly responsible or fearful that family members will retaliate.
“You don’t want to feel susceptible, and you don’t want to look incompetent,” Mosqueda says. “You might even think to yourself, They’ll move me into a nursing home.”
Falling prey to financial exploitation is nothing to feel ashamed of, says Duke Han, a professor of family medicine at the Keck School of Medicine whose lab has done extensive research on older adults’ susceptibility to financial exploitation.
Bad actors, whether relatives, friends or financial professionals, exploit people of all incomes, educational levels and walks of life, Han says. “We do research with professors, doctors, lawyers. It can happen to anyone.”
Where and how to report financial exploitation
Family members and caregivers are “uniquely positioned” to spot signs that an older loved one is being financially exploited and are most likely to report the abuse, according to a 2020 report from AARP’s BankSafe initiative, which works with financial institutions to prevent elder fraud.
Early intervention is important, because financial exploitation often leads to other kinds of mistreatment, such as physical and psychological abuse and neglect, says Mark Lachs, a professor of geriatric medicine at the Weill Cornell Medical College in New York and director of geriatrics for the New York Presbyterian Health Care System.
If you believe an abuser poses an immediate threat to your loved one, call 911.
Otherwise, the first step if you spot signs of financial exploitation is to contact Adult Protective Services for your area, according to the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). These state and local social service agencies investigate allegations of abuse, neglect and exploitation of older and disabled adults and work with victims and their families to stop it. The National Association of Adult Protective Services has a state-by-state directory.
Report the matter as well to your police or sheriff’s department, using its nonemergency number. You may also want to contact the district attorney’s office or legal aid programs in your area to explore legal options against perpetrators, such as prosecution, a protective order or a civil suit, the CFBP says.
Be ready to provide as much information as you can, such as:
- The date, time and location of any suspicious incidents.
- The names of anyone involved in suspicious behavior and anyone who observed it.
- A description of the suspected financial abuse and any other kinds of abuse.
- Your loved one’s health condition, including any memory loss or cognitive issues.
- Whether your loved one or someone else is in urgent danger.
Even if you don’t have all these details, report the incident. “The authorities who will investigate the situation do not expect you to know everything,” the CFPB says.
The U.S. Department of Justice’s National Elder Fraud Hotline (833-372-8311) is staffed by case managers who can guide you through local, state and federal reporting procedures and connect you with other assistance.
If the alleged exploitation takes place at a nursing home or assisted living facility, contact the state’s long-term care ombudsman, the CFPB recommends. You can also seek help from your loved one’s social worker and the facility’s resident council or family council.
Sandra Guy has won awards for her health and technology reporting for the Chicago Sun-Timesand the Society of Women Engineers' SWE Magazine. She teaches journalism at DePaul University and is a former president of the Chicago chapter of the Association for Women Journalists.