ITRC Fact Sheet 137
Financial Exploitation of the Elderly
The injuries suffered by an older person from physical abuse or neglect are tragic, but there is another form of abuse not as publicized called “financial exploitation.” Financial abuse or exploitation can rob a senior of self-esteem and trust as well as his or her means of subsistence. When a relative, friend or caretaker exploits an older person and manages to drain away savings, assets and good credit that have taken years to accumulate and establish, the result can be devastating. From that point on, the elder’s life style is severely diminished.
Criminals target older adults for financial exploitation for a variety of reasons. Criminals find seniors susceptible to these crimes of deception because they believe the older population has higher cash reserves and are less likely to check their credit reports or financial account statements carefully. This may be due to the fact that they are usually in a financially stable position and are not opening new lines of credit. This gives the thief the opportunity to steal a senior’s identity or money with a reduced probability of detection. Some other reasons seniors are targeted is because the thieves assume they are less aware of the crime of identity theft and various scam scenarios.
In addition, older adults living in residential facilities - or under the care of someone - are at greater risk because the caretakers have access to the senior’s personal records. This creates a situation which allows unscrupulous individuals to exploit those in their care.
Some examples of financial exploitation include:
- establishing credit using the victims personal information
- cashing an elderly person’s check without permission
- forging the victim’s signature
- misusing or stealing a person’s money or possessions
- deceiving a victim into signing a contract, will, Power of Attorney, or other document
Identity thieves can drain bank accounts, open new accounts, rack up huge credit card bills, obtain loans, apply for jobs, refinance the victim’s home, obtain medical care and even commit crimes with the victim’s identity.
Some of the most common ways that identity thieves obtain personal data:
- Wallet or purse theft: seniors are more likely to carry their Social Security cards or Medicare cards with them, making them prime targets
- Dumpster diving: thieves dig for personal information in the trash of homes and businesses.
- Phone scams: thieves pose as insurance companies, charities, banks, governmental agencies or other businesses to gather personal information over the phone.
- Personal theft: personal information is stolen by an employee, nurse, relative, or friend.
- Records theft: medical records, social security records, and other forms of personal records are a golden ticket in the wrong hands.
- Online fraud: fake emails and websites with false fronts are set up to trick unsuspecting consumers to provide personal data. The emails and websites can look legitimate and may even look just like a real communication from a company with which you do business. Thieves may also collect information and/or money via lottery scams.
- Mail theft: thieves intercept incoming and outgoing mail to obtain personal identifying information, collect checks and pre-approved credit card offers.
Although each case presents its own particular facts, exploitation tends to follow a predictable pattern. The exploitation usually begins with the existence of a relative, “friend”, or caregiver in whom the elder has placed confidence or trust. The delegation of financial authority to the exploiter may be done openly or come about more subtly.
In general, there seems to be an overall reluctance to report financial exploitation. Elderly victims may fail to report the crime either because of their own incapacity or because of the stigma they feel may be attached to their being identified as a victim. An older person may also be reluctant to report a relative or caregiver because of the emotional attachment to that person. Often times the senior may be scared that if they do report they have become a victim of identity theft or a scam, they may lose their independence, because family members or guardians may deem them incapable of handling their own affairs. The senior is often embarrassed or feels responsible and blames themselves for falling victim to the thief. Identity thieves and scammers know this and will plan to take advantage of it as much as possible.
Because they do make such attractive targets, seniors should be vigilant about protecting their personal information. This includes:
- Guarding Social Security numbers, checks, credit cards, Medicare cards, and financial statements. Leave these items in a locked security box at home or safety box at the bank. Do not carry such personal items in your purse, wallet or car. See ITRC Solution SN 22 – Medicare Cards and Social Security Numbers.
- Using a locked mailbox for incoming and outgoing mail. Don’t put mail in your mail box with the flag up. This is an open invitation to thieves. If possible, go to the post office to mail items.
- Investing in a small cross-cut shredder and destroy unneeded personal documents, receipts, pre-approved credit offers, unused or old checks and any other item that includes personal information about you or your accounts.
- Not giving your Social Security number, mother’s maiden name, account numbers or passwords to strangers who contact you, especially by phone, internet or email. Legitimate businesses will never contact their customers and ask for this information. If you are doing business with them, they will already have your pertinent information. If there is any question, contact the company directly with the contact information you have, not the phone numbers or email the stranger gives you.
- Checking your credit reports and financial statements regularly. If you notice any suspicious activity on your accounts or bill, contact the bank or company immediately. To obtain your annual free credit report, call toll free 1-877-322-8228 or go to www.annualcreditreport.com.
If you suspect that you or someone you know may be a victim of financial exploitation, please use the resources below for assistance.
Contact the Department of Health & Human Services Administration on Aging abuse hotline by calling toll-free 1-800-677-1116. You will be directed to local contacts and resources to help with your specific situation.
Contact the National Center on Elder Abuse (NCEA) at 1-800-667-1116 or www.ncea.aoa.gov.