Financial Exploitation Overview
Financial exploitation can be devastating—emotionally and financially. Hundreds of cases of financial exploitation of older and vulnerable adults are reported in Maryland each year; however, these hundreds of cases are estimated to be only a fraction of the thousands of cases that go unreported in our state. Exploiters can be strangers who swindle through the mail, phone, or internet. In far too many cases, however—the vast majority—the exploiters are family and “friends.” Financial exploitation of seniors can be especially devastating because seniors have fewer years of employment to make up the funds they have lost and in many cases the victims may have already retired.
What is Elder Financial Exploitation?
The illegal or improper use of an older adult’s money, property, or other resources for monetary or personal benefit, profit, or gain. This includes, but is not limited to, theft, misappropriation, concealment, scams, fraud, or predatory lending.
Who is at risk?
All older adults may be victims of financial exploitation regardless of whether they are rich or poor, or undereducated or highly educated. Seniors of all races, cultures, and creeds are victimized. Older adults are at greater risk of financial exploitation due to a variety of reasons that includes, but is not limited to, cognitive decline, physical decline, an accumulated wealth in savings accounts, fixed incomes, or social security benefits. Furthermore, older adults may not as readily identify a potential risk, such as an untrustworthy person because of the trusting nature attributed to growing up in a more trusting era.
What are the signs?
The key to spotting financial exploitation is a change in a person’s established financial patterns. Financial exploitation can have devastating impacts. If you suspect that an older adult is a victim, look for some of the warning signs below.
- Unusual activity in an older adult’s bank accounts, including large, frequent or unexplained withdrawals and/or transfers
- ATM withdrawals by an older adult who has never used a debit or ATM card
- Sudden non-sufficient fund activity, unpaid bills, or trouble paying for care they once could afford
- Suspicious signatures on checks, or outright forgery
- Altered wills and trusts
How to report suspected Financial Exploitation:
Maryland law requires health practitioners, police officers, and human service workers to report suspected abuse to the local department of social services.
Any concerned person who has reason to believe that an alleged older adult has been subjected to financial exploitation may report it and the report can be anonymous. The following information on reporting is for members of the public.
If you suspect that an older adult is being, or is about to be, financially exploited, there are a number of potential places to call for help, including, but not limited to, local police, Adult Protective Services (APS)
, a private attorney, or any number of government agencies that address particular kinds of exploitation.
Follow the steps below to help you decide who to contact for assistance.
1. If you believe a crime is in progress or is about to be consummated, e.g., a senior citizen is about to transfer a significant sum of money to a home repair grafter, then call the local police by dialing 911.
2. Whether or not you call 911, the next step depends on whether the person exploited is vulnerable, e.g., lacks the physical or mental capacity to provide for his or her daily needs. If the victim lacks the physical or mental capacity to provide for his or her daily needs, call the local
Adult Protective Services (APS) office
. There is a local APS office in each county’s Department of Social Services (as well as Baltimore City’s). You can find the list of offices at
. Alternatively, you can call the statewide abuse number to report at
1-800-332-6347. APS will send out an investigator if it believes the person lacks the capacity to provide for his or her daily needs and is being financially abused.
Please note that if the potential victim resides in a nursing home, be sure to explain to APS in detail why you suspect financial exploitation because financial exploitation is the only kind of maltreatment that APS investigates in nursing homes.
3. If you are
not sure if the person exploited has a disability severe enough to qualify him or her as lacking the capacity to provide for his or her daily needs, call APS anyway. APS will make the determination. There is no penalty or downside to referring someone to APS as APS will eventually find out if that person has the capacity to provide for his or her own daily needs.
4. If the person
has the physical or mental capacity to provide for his or her daily needs, then there are quite a few options for referral depending on the nature of the exploitation as outlined in subsection 5 below. However, before you make a referral, you may want to try to convince the person that he or she is being exploited so that he or she can stop the exploitation, report it, or both. Keep in mind, you may not be able to convince the victim or you may decide it would be counter-productive to try to convince the victim that he or she is being exploited. Think carefully about reporting without the victim’s consent.
Please note that if domestic abuse is also an issue, know that reporting domestic abuse without the consent of the victim can be dangerous to the victim.
5. There are many possible referral options for financial exploitation cases where the victim has the capacity to address his or her daily needs. Sometimes it can be difficult to determine the correct or best option. Never hesitate to call the
National Elder Fraud Hotline at
. See the following webpage:
. The hotline has live operators available most hours and they can help you decide which may be the best way to proceed. Here are some of the many reporting options:
If it is a mail sweepstakes or other mail-based scam, contact the US Postal Inspection Service:https://about.usps.com/publications/pub300a/pub300a_v04_revision_072019_tech_024.htm
If it is an Internet- or telephone-based scam, it is often hard to know where to report because the scams are so varied and the perpetrators could be in a country far away. Here is a valuable federal website that gives reporting tips on many different types of scams: https://www.usa.gov/stop-scams-frauds
Scams using undue influence by a “new friend,” e.g., romance scams, are particularly difficult to deal with if the person does not believe and cannot be convinced they are being exploited. Sometimes hiring a private attorney or investigator may be the best route. A private attorney or investigator may be able to gather enough information to convince the police to open a criminal investigation.
If the exploiter is a family member, caregiver, or neighbor, you may also want to explore the possibility of hiring a private attorney to obtain some relief for the victim
What can you do to help keep older adults safe from Elder Financial Exploitation?
When it comes to financial exploitation, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. The challenge, however, is that taking steps to reduce the chance of financial exploitation often requires older adults to do two things that most find difficult.
- Realize that they are at risk. This is tough because most of us have trouble imagining a time when we might become vulnerable, gullible, or cognitively impaired. It can be distressing to think about and even harder to imagine such a situation.
- Consider giving up some privacy and autonomy. Basically, to reduce the risk of financial exploitation, you have to be willing to do things like letting others to periodically review your financial activity, and under some circumstances, overriding what you are trying to do. Many older adults are reluctant to give others the ability to review their decisions and intervene in their autonomy. Doing so carefully and thoughtfully; however, can significantly reduce one’s risk.
Here are links to brochures, websites, and handouts to share with vulnerable older adults:
What is Project S.A.F.E. (Stop Adult Financial Exploitation)?
Project SAFE is an informal public/private coalition of 18 different organizations that share a common goal of preventing and remedying financial exploitation of vulnerable adults. Project SAFE has offered training to the financial and law enforcement communities on how to detect and report financial exploitation. Project SAFE also educates older Marylanders on how to avoid financial exploitation. The 18 organizations comprising Project SAFE are:
Various materials produced or contributed to by Project S.A.F.E. are available, including: