For About and By Caregivers
Financial Abuse: Could You Spot It?

By Eileen Beal, MA


Despite the hit their savings and investments took during the “Great Recession,” Americans between 70 and 90 are still the wealthiest group in the US.  Not surprisingly, they are also prime targets for financial exploitation and abuse.  “It’s all their assets – a mortgage-free home, steady income from Social Security or a pension, investments – that make them a target,” says attorney Page Ulrey, a senior deputy prosecuting attorney for the King County Prosecutor’s Office in Washington.

According to experts “prime” targets are: 

  • Women, most often between ages 80 and 89
  • Men who have recently lost a spouse or partner
  • Living alone and may require some help with either health care or home maintenance
  • Lonely and vulnerable
  • Especially at risk during the holidays

In addition, financial exploiters target those with diminished mental capacity and decision making ability, says Lori Stevic-Rust, PhD, Director of Senior Services at Lake Health System, in northeast Ohio.  A nationally-recognized psychologist, she is often called in to evaluate the capacity and competency of at-risk seniors.

“They target them,” she adds, “because their ability to pay attention, process information, analyze situations, or figure out what the long-term consequences will be for a given action is significantly impaired…Even when they know the day and year and can perform simple activities in the home – prepare a meal for instance – they aren’t able to make important decisions or judgments or carry out complicated activities that involve many steps.”

It’s a MOM thing

The majority of exploiters and abusers are strangers: telemarketing scammers after credit card or Social Security numbers, paid caregivers, or “sweethearts,” con artists who prey on lonely elders.  After that, it’s friends, neighbors or family members – most often a son or son-in-law.  Then it’s unscrupulous professionals – accountants, financial planners, bankers, lawyers, physicians, contractors, etc.  Many have histories of drug or alcohol abuse and/or have gambling or other financial problems.

Those fighting financial exploitation and abuse say it’s all about:

Motive:  Most of the time exploiters and abusers are after assets: money, jewelry, property. But sometimes greed or sibling rivalry are motives, too.

Opportunity:  Most exploiters and abusers have unrestricted – and unobserved – access to their victim.

Means:  With “access,” they are able to gain the elder’s trust, confidence or affection and use their “special” relationship to charm, cajole, coerce and steal – outright – from their victim.

Spotting the signs

Financial abuse of older adults has become so rampant that when the US Government created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, it designated a special Office of Older Americans  ( within the Bureau to deal with it.  The office’s goals: track down and expose scams; ensure laws currently on the books are enforced; and educate seniors and those who care about them, to identify, avoid and report financial scams. 
The office is new, however, and just getting traction in Washington, so if you want to protect a loved one or friend from financial abuse, you need to be able to read the signs of abuse.  According to a recent MetLife Report, The Essentials: Preventing Elder Abuse, the following are flags that mean it could occur, or is occurring:

  • lack of care when the person has sufficient funds available
  • changes in banking or spending habits
  • excessive use of the ATM or credit cards, especially for non-care-related items
  • abrupt changes in a will, power of attorney, or financial documents
  • unpaid bills and utilities
  • lack of knowledge of financial status
  • new “best friends” 
  • unexplained disappearance of valuables or money – or both
  • unexplained transfer of money or assets to a family member or someone outside of the family – such as a new “best friend” 
  • discovery of the person’s signature forged on checks, financial transaction documents, or documents or titles related to his or her possessions
  • unusual degree of fear of or submissiveness to a caregiver
  • bruises, trips to the ER, broken bones – where there is financial abuse there is often physical abuse
  • isolation – by aide or new “best friends” – from family, friends, community, or other stable relationships
    signs of intimidation and/or anxiety when questioned about new “best friend”
  • missed appointments or uncharacteristic nonpayment of bills
  • anxiety about personal finances

In addition, changes in long-standing living arrangements  (especially those involving the “new” friend); changes in  long-standing inheritance plans; and creation of a durable power of attorney – a powerful legal document that gives the abuser the means to control both the elder’s person and assets – are blazing red flags.
Prevention: always the best remedy
Financial abuse is a crime, so it’s surprising that while more cases are being reported, few abusers stand trial and go to jail.  That’s because, says Ulrey, “Those who are being abused are often dependent on their abuser for their care and don’t want to [take them to court] because of the repercussions it would cause.  Or they fear they will be sent to a nursing home.  Or they fear – or love – the offender...Or they are ashamed to admit that they have been taken advantage of.”
Since it’s often difficult to prosecute exploiters – not just because of the reasons mentioned above, but also because often the victim has passed away or is so cognitively impaired they are unable to testify – to keep a vulnerable relative or loved one out of harms way you must be pro-active.  And the earlier deterrents and roadblocks are set in place, the better. 
The following are time-tested strategies for keeping financial abusers at bay:

Stay connected.   “Financial abuse and exploitation occurs in the shadows, where people are isolated from those who could spot the signs that something isn’t right,” says Ulrey.
Become hyper-vigilant about the person’s physical health and cognitive state.  “Declines in both can make them vulnerable to manipulation and exploitation,” explained Stevic-Rust.
Help the person get information about exploitative situations, schemes, or scams they may encounter (see resources below) and to become better educated about their finances.
Help the person consult with legal and/or financial professionals who can draw up documents (trusts, limited powers of attorney, conservatorships, etc.).  “These can  – and for the most part do, deter financial exploiters,” says Ulrey.

Report suspected cases of financial abuse to local authorities.  Adult Protective Services departments are listed for every state at the National Adult Protective Services Association’s Web site ( “This site doesn’t just have the telephone numbers for reporting financial abuse, they take anonymous tips too,” says the Association’s executive director, Kathleen Quinn.

If all else fails, you may be able to file for a protection order.  “This will limit the contact the abuser has with their victim…and perhaps protect assets, too,” says Ulrey.

Eileen Beal is a Cleveland, Ohio-based writer who has been writing about caregiver issues for more than a decade. This article was written with the support of a MetLife Foundation Journalists in Aging Fellowship grant administered through New America Media ( and the Gerontological Society of America (

Sources and Resources

Consumer Financial Protection Bureau
Elder Financial Protection Network (Note: While this is a Cal-based site, the information applies to everyone.)
Family Caregiver Alliance
National Adult Protective Services Association
National Committee for the Prevention of Elder Abuse
“Preventing Elder Financial Abuse for Older Adults”
“The Essentials: Preventing Elder Abuse”


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