You may think that your elderly loved ones are safe from being scammed because they have been careful with their estate planning, especially if they have a lot to steal. But there is more to keeping them financially secure than a will and trust. The elders tell you “we have taken care of all that. Don’t worry.” They’re smart, historically good with money. But things can change with age. Should you worry?
Maybe you should. The US Department of Justice (DOJ) conducts its investigations, prosecutions, and tries to alert the public to the signs of financial elder abuse. If you have an elderly parent, meaning anyone over the age of 65, that person is considered an “elder” under the law and is statistically more at risk of theft. Invisible scammers aren’t the only ones trying to steal your elderly parents’ assets. This can be anyone with access to your bank accounts, checkbook, or financial information. And it can happen to anyone.
DOJ publishes 11 cases of financial exploitation warning signs on your website. I’m highlighting the three most recurring red flags we see consulting with families on AgingParents.com. I have a pet peeve for this! Adult children with cognitive impairment or just gullible older parents don’t always pay attention and ask questions. Many families are unaware of these warning signs and don’t see them until it’s too late. Many of these crimes are preventable. If you don’t want the cost of caring for your elderly loved ones to fall on YOU, in case your elders get seriously ripped off, consider checking these things:
- Abrupt changes in a loved one’s will or other financial documents
- Sudden appearance of previously uninvolved family members claiming their rights to an older adult’s property or possessions
- The inclusion of additional names that were never there before on a senior’s bank signature card
These signs are often linked. Here is a typical example:
Mom’s distant cousin, whom she hasn’t seen in years, just moved in with her. Cousin is deeply involved in Mom’s life and even provides the physical care that Mommy needs. The family shrugs and doesn’t question the cousin. Cousin is saving them the trouble of taking care of themselves or paying for it. Primo slowly convinces Mom that he’s just trying to protect her. Mom is a bit forgetful and is vulnerable to this. She needs company. Cousin pays close attention to her and keeps saying that the other family wants to get the money from her.
Power of attorney can be a license to steal
She has Mom sign a power of attorney, giving her cousin full control over her money and property. You wouldn’t know this if you’re overconfident and don’t keep a close eye. The cousin’s move itself is suspicious and should serve as a red flag for any other family that has a mom. Maybe it’s okay or maybe the cousin has ulterior motives and is an opportunist. If ignored, the cousin can also get mom to sign new estate documents disinheriting everyone but herself. If this didn’t happen regularly, she might not write about it. But it’s all too common for a manipulative schemer to steal from each potential heir of the aging father and get away with it.
The worst outcome in the cousin case example, above, is that the cousin empties out the bank and investment accounts, gets mom to name her as the sole beneficiary in the will or trust. Then he leaves, without warning, without discussion with anyone. The family is shocked and outraged to find out that mom has no money and now she really needs a lot of expensive care. Cousin has nothing to say other than “it’s what she wanted.” And with what was basically illegal manipulation, she could get away with it. Suing her for her wrongdoing is expensive. Who could afford it?
This is what families should do. You may feel intrusive and your elderly parent may resist. But you must be aware of what is happening with your elders and not blindly trust that they are always in the know.
Ask questions of your elders and question anyone you have even a slight suspicion about in your parents’ lives. Who has access to your financial information?
You need to verify what your elders tell you. Maybe they are forgetful or just don’t see what risk may be present. “Everything is fine, don’t worry” is not a sure answer when you need to know more.
Get online access to at least view your accounts, even if you don’t bank online. Watch the activity regularly. You will need permission to access the information.
There are a lot of greedy people out there. It can be someone you know or a stranger, a caregiver, a so-called friend or a relative of your loved ones. If you’re viewing your elderly parents’ financial transactions, you’ll see any unusual activity, such as bank transfers to strangers. It only takes a few minutes a week to check online bank balance or other institutional records. If you yourself are uncomfortable with online banking and gaining access to an elder’s account, don’t let that stop you. You can ask a younger or more tech-savvy person to help you set it up. You can learn how to verify the information. Unusual withdrawals are a good first clue that something alarming might be going on. You can stop thefts when you see them. In most cases, banks will cooperate when you show evidence of abuse in your older customer. They can block accounts, change access, and report to authorities.
Every family with an aging parent or other loved one can do much to heed the warnings and protect our elders from manipulation and abuse.
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