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How to spot elder financial abuse – and what to do about it

bay fed elder financial abuse 1
(Bay Federal Credit Union)

There’s a silent outbreak among seniors. Due to increases in social isolation and digital activity, elder financial abuse has spread rapidly alongside the coronavirus pandemic. And almost no one is talking about it.


In the United States, victims 60 and older lost nearly $1 billion combined in 2020 — an increase of about 43 percent over the previous year — according to the Department of Justice. The average loss was $9,175, but losses surpassing a staggering $100,000 were not unheard of.

Like with other forms of abuse, many victims of financial exploitation often suffer in silence because of intense feelings of embarrassment and shame, or because they’re angry with themselves. Likewise, many family members don’t step in when they suspect something is wrong, because they are afraid of causing emotional turmoil for their loved ones.

bay fed elder financial abuse 2
(Bay Federal Credit Union)

In honor of Elder Abuse Awareness Month this June, Bay Federal Credit Union reached out to Santa Cruz County Adult Protective Services to find out what the most common financial abuse trends are – and how to combat them. “As elders in our community get scammed, it’s shocking how few of them ever talk about it,” said Whitney Barnes, who supervises a team of APS social workers.

APS is in charge of investigating allegations of abuse and neglect for dependent and older adults throughout the county. Financial abuse made up just 14% of the 1,376 confirmed and inconclusive abuse cases that were reported to APS last year, according to the Human Services Department’s annual report. That may sound like a small piece of the pie, until you consider that only one in every 40 cases is ever reported. The true number of victims in the greater Santa Cruz area was likely closer to 7,700.

“If all the victims of elder financial abuse were able to come together and target the real source of their anger, it would not be themselves. It would be these criminal enterprises. What I would like for folks to do is talk about it.”

— Whitney Barnes, Adult Protective Services of Santa Cruz County

Here are what Barnes sees as three of the most common financial abuse threats to seniors:

Romance or Fake Friendship Scams

  • What it looks like: A senior meets a new person online. What luck! If it weren’t for the distance separating them, this new person would be their perfect match. They form a relationship via correspondence. The relationship is a fantasy, but it’s a fulfilling one that enriches the senior’s life.
  • How it works: Cultivating relationships is the scammer’s full-time job, which is why the connection seems so real. These are long cons, meaning requests for financial assistance may not appear for many months, further strengthening the sense of authenticity. Sometimes, a well-meaning victim may even offer to send money to their “friend,” who has found themselves in a supposed crisis.
  • Warning signs: The elder is oftentimes reluctant to talk about this relationship, or feels it should be kept secret. They never meet this new person in real life.
  • How to stay safe: Seek out trustworthy, moderated online communities, such as Senior Center Without Limits, which is managed by Community Bridges.
  • What to do: “It’s heartbreaking to tell your grandmother that this person is fictitious — that this person isn’t real,” Barnes said. “They’re not going to want to hear it.” So if your grandmother suddenly has a new boyfriend in Arizona, invite her out and chat with her over a cup of coffee.
    • Learn what emotional void the scammer is filling and provide an alternative, such as companionship.
    • Once her boyfriend isn’t her primary source of attention, openly address your concerns with your grandmother. Always remember that while the relationship may be a scam, it feels real to her.
    • File a report with the police.

Device Takeover Scams

  • What it looks like: This can be a very cunning scam, because it often sounds like a solution to technical difficulties. It may originate via a phone call, a pop-up ad, or an email from what seems like a trustworthy source. Spoof emails and text messages will look like they’re from Amazon or eBay — or even your own bank.
  • How it works: When a victim clicks on a link, it compromises their computer or smartphone, giving hackers access. Or perhaps a caller guides the victim through logging into their device and granting remote access. Then, the thief infiltrates the victim’s accounts, changes passwords, and assumes control. Before you know it, the thief has stolen the victim’s savings and maxed out their credit cards.
  • Warning signs: The message suggests that the elder “click here to fix” a problem, confirm a purchase, update their information, or claim a prize.
  • How to stay safe: If your grandfather isn’t sure whether an email or phone call is legitimate, he should hang up and avoid clicking on any links. Instead, he should independently find contact information for the company that supposedly reached out and confirm whether or not the communication was above board.
  • What to do: If your grandfather has already lost control of his device, reassure him that he is still a savvy guy, and encourage him to help police stop this from happening to others — he can be a hero! File a police report and alert his financial institutions as soon as possible.

Exploitation by a Trusted Person

  • What it looks like: A trusted person is frequently a family member or caregiver who might feel entitled to certain assets. The person may persuade or coerce a senior to gift their assets, or the person may simply make the senior’s funds available to themselves. They might do this by committing credit card fraud, stealing a checkbook, or instructing the senior to make a cash withdrawal. Often, paperwork will be involved, such as signing a new will, filing a quit claim deed, or transferring trust ownership.
  • How it works: Exploitation by a trusted person can be accomplished through fear and intimidation, and of the three methods of financial abuse mentioned in this article, it is most likely to be paired with other types of abuse. However, especially if the senior has been experiencing cognitive decline, the trusted person may be able to take advantage of them without being a bully about it. Regardless, the result is the same. Assets that belonged to the elder soon legally belong to the trusted person.
  • Warning signs: The elder might seem anxious, depressed, confused, or has withdrawn from family and social circles.
  • How to stay safe: Have transparent conversations early and as a family. The more you know about your senior’s wishes, the better you will be able to advocate for them later. Any quid pro quo agreements between family members should be made in writing before cognitive decline begins, if possible. Barnes also advises to stay up to date with your loved one’s physician to ensure that you’re aware of any cognitive decline and its progression.
  • What to do: If you suspect elder abuse or you are a victim and you need help, call APS toll-free at 1-866-580-4357.

After filing a police report, Barnes also recommends reporting fraud to the Federal Trade Commission and the District Attorney for Consumer Affairs to further aid in prosecution efforts.

Above all, if you are a survivor of elder financial abuse, talk with your friends about your experience so they, too, can learn from it. Like famous psychologist Nathaniel Branden said, awareness is the first step toward change.


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