The injuries suffered by an older person from physical abuse or neglect are tragic, but there is another, less publicized, form of abuse: financial exploitation. Financial abuse or exploitation can rob a senior of self-esteem and trust, as well as of his or her means of subsistence. It is a serious and shameful crime. When a relative, friend or caretaker exploits an older person and manages to drain away savings, assets and good credit that have taken years to accumulate and establish, the result can be devastating.
Criminals target older adults for financial exploitation for a variety of reasons. Criminals find seniors susceptible to these crimes of deception because they believe that the older population has higher cash reserves and are less likely to check their credit reports or financial account statements carefully. This may be due to the fact that they are usually in a financially stable position and are not opening new lines of credit. This gives the thief the opportunity to steal a senior’s identity or money with a reduced probability of detection. Criminals also target seniors because they assume seniors are less aware of the crime of identity theft and various scam scenarios.
In addition, older adults living in residential facilities – or under the care of someone – are at risk because the caretakers have access to the senior’s personal records.
Some examples of financial exploitation include:
- establishing credit using the victim’s personal information
- cashing an elderly person’s checks without permission
- forging the victim’s signature
- misusing or stealing a person’s money or possessions
- deceiving a victim into signing a contract, will, Power of Attorney, or other document
Identity thieves can drain bank accounts, open new accounts, rack up huge credit card bills, obtain loans, apply for jobs, refinance the victim’s home, obtain medical care and even commit crimes with the victim’s identity.
Some of the most common ways that identity thieves obtain personal data are the following:
- Wallet or purse theft: seniors are more likely to carry their Social Security cards or Medicare cards (which include individuals’ Social Security numbers) with them, making them prime targets
- Dumpster diving: thieves dig for personal information in the trash of homes and businesses.
- Phone scams: thieves pose as insurance companies, charities, banks, governmental agencies or other businesses to gather personal information over the phone.
- Personal theft: personal information is stolen by an employee, nurse, relative, or friend.
- Records theft: medical records, social security records, and other forms of personal records are a golden ticket when in the wrong hands.
- Online fraud: fake emails and websites with false fronts are set up to trick unsuspecting consumers to provide personal data. The emails and websites can look legitimate and may even look just like a real communication from a company with which you do business. Thieves may also collect information and/or money via lottery scams.
Elderly victims may fail to report identity theft crimes either because of their own incapacity or because of the stigma they feel may be attached to their being identified as a victim. Oftentimes seniors may be scared that if they do report they have become a victim of identity theft or a scam, they may lose their independence because family members or guardians may deem them incapable of handling their own affairs.
Because they do make such attractive targets, seniors should be vigilant about protecting their personal information. This includes:
- Guarding Social Security numbers, checks, credit cards, Medicare cards, and financial statements. Leave these items in a locked security box at home or safety box at the bank.
- Using a locked mailbox for incoming and outgoing mail.
- Investing in a small cross-cut shredder to destroy unneeded personal documents, receipts, pre-approved credit offers, unused or old checks and any other item that includes personal information about you or your accounts.
- Not giving your Social Security number, mother’s maiden name, account numbers or passwords to strangers who contact you, especially by phone, Internet or email. Legitimate businesses will never contact their customers and ask for this information. If you are doing business with them, they will already have your pertinent information. If there is any question, contact the company directly with the contact information you have, not via phone numbers or email addresses provided by a stranger.
- Checking your credit reports and financial statements regularly. If you notice any suspicious activity on your accounts or bill, contact the bank or company immediately. To obtain your annual free credit report, call toll free (877) 322-8228 or go to http://www.annualcreditreport.com.
If you suspect that you or someone you know may be a victim of financial exploitation, please contact The Department of Health & Human Services Administration on Aging abuse hotline by calling toll-free (800) 677-1116. National Center on Elder Abuse (NCEA) at (800) 677-1116 or http://www.ncea.aoa.gov.