Rodnee Warr returned home from work one evening in 2006 to find her father eagerly waiting to tell her about the thousands of dollars he’d won in an online lottery.
Warr, a compliance consultant for the Elder Client Initiatives team at Wells Fargo Advisors — which works to warn clients of scams and help investigate suspected cases of elder abuse — realized her work had followed her home.
According to Investor Protection Trust (PDF), a nonprofit devoted to investor education, one out of every five Americans over the age of 65 has fallen victim to elder financial abuse. In fact, the 2015 True Link Report on Elder Financial Abuse estimated seniors lose $36.5 billion each year to financial exploitation, criminal fraud, and caregiver abuse.
By the time Warr learned what was going on, her father had already sent a “claims agent” a processing fee so that he could receive his promised lottery win.
After sending the money, he received another notification asking for an additional processing fee to claim an even larger prize. That’s when he told Warr. She advised him to take the lottery check to the bank to verify its validity before sending any more money. As she suspected, the check wasn’t good.
Warr thought her father, who died in 2009, was an unlikely victim. At the time, the 72-year-old Haitian immigrant and retired biochemical engineer was active in his community, still took classes at a community college, and was internet savvy.
“He was online all the time when he was home,” she said. “It really proved you can totally be mentally competent and still be susceptible to these scammers.”
Like Warr, most people don’t think they will ever have to face this type of situation until someone they love is targeted or victimized. Here are some tips for individuals looking to protect themselves, as well as loved ones, from potential elder financial abuse.
Understand the problem
Ron Long, head of Regulatory Affairs and Elder Client Initiatives at Wells Fargo Advisors — and the leader of Warr’s team — said elder financial abuse is a growing problem.
“It’s imperative for people to know that this crime is not exclusive to anyone or anything,” he said. “It has the potential to impact every single one of us on some level, and understanding that is essential to fighting this epidemic.”
Long said the crimes are not always committed by strangers, citing research by the National Center for Elder Abuse that found more than 70 percent of elder financial crimes are committed by family members, friends, trusted persons, or others known to the individual being exploited.
Identify warning signs
The sheer number and variety of elder financial abuse schemes, said Long, often make it difficult to identify all of the warning signs, but these are common elements to watch for in an older adult:
- New best friends.
- Large, frequent gifts to a caregiver.
- Missing personal belongings.
- Insufficient funds.
- Paying a bill more than once.
- Behavioral changes, such as fear or submissiveness, social isolation, withdrawn behavior, disheveled appearance, and forgetfulness.
- Sudden reluctance to discuss financial matters.
- Atypical or unexplained withdrawals or wire transfers, or other changes in financial situation.
- Changes in legal documents, such as a will.
Report suspected abuse
Sadly, Long said, studies show that as few as one in 44 cases of elder financial abuse are reported. Many victims don’t report abuse because of fear of retaliation, reluctance to incriminate a family member or friend, or unwillingness to admit their vulnerability. For these reasons, he said, third-parties should be vigilant in watching for signs and reporting suspected abuse.
“Remember, you may be the only line of defense between the perpetrator and the victim,” Long said.
Do you suspect someone you know is being targeted, or might already have been victimized? Click on your state on the National Center on Elder Abuse website
to find local agencies and other contacts. If the situation is dangerous, call 911 or the local police for immediate help.
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