Newsletter Articles

Financial Abuse: Will It Affect Your Aging Parents?

By: Carolyn Rosenblatt

Elder Law Associates Newsletter dated March 25, 2019

Scams, theft and fraud with seniors' money is a growing problem. Now the Wall Street Journal reports that banks in our country calculated a 12% increase in financial elder abuse just in the last year. Why do the thieves pick on grandma or grandpa so much? It looks so ugly to take advantage of an elder.

Our aging parents are easy targets for scammers for lots of reasons. Elders in this country hold a disproportionately high level of wealth compared to younger people. Some have accumulated significant assets and they may not see themselves as vulnerable at all.

Clearly, diminishing cognition makes it easy for thieves and manipulators. Cognitive decline affects at least a third of people over age 85. They may not have the awareness any longer to spot a fishy sounding line from anyone. Many elders live alone and are isolated, ready to engage with that friendly sounding, cheerful voice on the phone from the clever scammer. The older person is hungry for attention and the thief is ready to offer it, weaving a trap over time. Many aging folks are dependent on others for care, for help at home and for social contact. Unscrupulous family members lead the pack of those who seize on that vulnerability and trust to rip off their elders. It's all too easy to influence an aging person to give a "loan", access to an account, or power of attorney to a person with ulterior motives, which essentially creates a license to steal.

Banks are making efforts step up their reporting of suspected elder abuse, but that is not enough to thwart the crime. Too often, the customer-facing bank employee does not see anything wrong until far too much money has been drained from the elder's account. After the abuse has occurred, it is too late to get the money back. And there is hesitation at the banks, even when they are warned. To put bluntly, banks can add to the problem.

One example of this involved a client of ours at where we consult with families and elders. She was the daughter of an 87 year old dad who had some memory problems and was frail, losing independence. Her father was a wealthy man, in a long term relationship with a younger woman. She had manipulated him into giving her access to his family's trust account into which his significant income was deposited each month. The man's daughter found out after a suspicious withdrawal from the account and she contacted the bank immediately. She traveled to her father's state, went to the bank in person and showed them the trust, which did not have the girlfriend's name on it anywhere. She asked them to stop the access by the girlfriend. The bank then put the funds into an account to which the girlfriend did not have access. After the man's daughter left the state, the girlfriend took the elder back to the bank and told him to say that he wanted her on the account. Presto! The bank complied and the girlfriend then had access once again, only one day later. The bank aided the girlfriend in financial abuse of their own elderly customer, despite a specific request to stop it and evidence of manipulation. The matter ended up in litigation and the substantial funds in the account were held by the bank for many months, depriving the elder and his daughter of using the funds for her aging father's benefit. Lawsuits can take a very long time to get finished.

This is not a rare thing. Bank employees should know better but despite training, warnings about how to spot abuse, there is still a strong tendency to do what the bank customer says. That holds true all too often, even if that customer is a frail 87 year old accompanied by a pushy "friend" asking him to say she must have access to all his money. At we have seen serious problems with banks just not "getting it" when it comes to suspicious behavior by manipulative third parties who take the elder to their bank and make potentially dangerous requests. Yes, they are supposed to report potential elder abuse. What does it take for a bank employee to conclude that something doesn't look right and to stop a transaction?

Can this manipulation of your own aging loved ones ever happen? You may think they're totally sharp and too smart to ever get swindled. Don't be so sure, as scams can happen to anyone, no matter how smart they are. Here are the takeaways to keep in mind for protecting your aging parents as much as you can.

  1. Make no assumptions that it could never happen to your aging parents. Elder abuse costs seniors more than $36B a year in the U.S. alone. The problem is growing according to the WSJ article mentioned here.
  2. Aging parents with cognitive decline, memory loss or confusion are especially desirable targets for scammers and manipulators. Do not allow them to be in complete charge of their own money--too risky!
  3. Family members are the most frequent abusers of aging loved ones. Keep an eye out on that relative with no income, a drug habit or gambling problems. They can be dangerous to older relatives.
  4. Even if your aging parents do not bank online, you can, with their permission, get online access to their bank and brokerage accounts. Check them at least weekly for any strange withdrawals.
  5. Banks are trying to stop fraud and abuse, but don't count on them alone to protect your loved ones. The problem is far too widespread. Every family needs to keep watch over aging parents' money.

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