Critter Corner: How Can You Tell if a Loved One is a Victim of Financial Exploitation?

Dear Raider,

My aunt has been acting differently lately, and I think she could be a victim of financial exploitation. Once a social butterfly, she’s been isolating herself from family and friends. I stopped by while she was at Mahjongg, and there were unpaid bills on her table. There was a bank statement with large withdrawals and her account has dwindled down a lot, although she doesn’t seem to spend money on much. I will definitely be having a talk with her about this, but I’m wondering if you can tell me the signs of financial exploitation and what we should do if she is a victim. Thanks for your help!

Vic Timm

Dear Vic,

Financial exploitation is defined as the illegal or improper use of another person’s funds, property, or assets. Some examples can include cashing another person’s checks without their authorization or permission; forging another person’s signature; misusing or stealing another person’s money or possessions; and coercing or deceiving another person into signing any document (e.g., a contract), among other things.

It’s crucial to be on the lookout for warning signs that a loved one could be in trouble. But spotting signs of elder financial abuse and exploitation isn’t always easy. Common red flags that can point to financial fraud against seniors can include:

  • Sudden changes in bank accounts or banking practices;
  • Unusual use of credit cards;
  • The signatures on checks or other documents do not resemble their signature, or they are unable to write;
  • Telephone, water, electricity, or other utilities being shut off;
  • Unpaid bills, liens, or foreclosure notices despite sufficient income;
  • Checks written to “cash” or unauthorized ATM withdrawals;
  • Turning over finances or transferring assets to others without explanation or consent;
  • Disappearance of cash, valuable objects, or financial statements;
  • Unexplained changes to wills or other financial documents;
  • Sudden changes in an elder’s mood or demeanor;
  • A caregiver expresses unusual concern that an excessive amount of money is being expended;
  • Deliberate isolation from friends and family.

Financial exploitation can happen at home, online, or just about anywhere. While some instances occur as deception, false pretenses, or sleight of hand, it isn’t uncommon for abuse to include coercion, harassment, duress, and threats.

Why Elder Financial Abuse Goes Unreported

With estimated losses in the billions of dollars per year, elder financial abuse is a significant crime affecting seniors in various communities every day. However, it often goes underreported for various reasons:

  • The abuser is a family member or trusted caregiver.
  • The victim doesn’t know it happened until the damage is done.
  • The victim experiences shame.
  • The victim doesn’t know who to tell or where to report it.

Seniors may rely on the abuser for care and basic needs and may fear retaliation. The victim’s lack of physical or mental ability can also lead to the situation going unreported.

To help spot the warning signs, stay in contact with others in your loved one’s support network. Don’t be afraid to ask questions or follow up on claims of behavioral changes or remarks that could indicate financial abuse.

Reporting Elder Abuse

Most states have penalties for those who victimize older adults. Increasingly, across the country, law enforcement officers and prosecutors are trained on elder abuse and financial exploitation and ways to use criminal and civil laws to bring abusers to justice. If you feel an older adult is in immediate, life-threatening danger, call 911. Anyone who suspects that an older adult is being mistreated should contact a local Adult Protective Services office, Long-Term Care Ombudsman, or police. More information is available in today’s Ask the Expert article and via the Eldercare Locator online or by calling 1-800-677-1116.

Where can I learn more?

The following are some resources on financial exploitation and other forms of elder abuse:

Hope this is helpful, and everything is okay with your aunt!


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About Renee Eder

Renee Eder is the Director of Public Relations for the Farr Law Firm, and gives the voice to the Critters of Critter Corner. Renee’s poodle, Penny, is an official comfort dog who she and her children bring to visit with seniors who are in the early stages of dementia at a local senior home once a month.

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