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The Color of Money

As recession grinds on, financial abuse of elders takes a growing toll

By Michelle Singletary
Washington Post / July 16, 2009
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Fraud is bad enough, but when family members or caregivers financially abuse elderly relatives or patients, that’s downright despicable.

Family, friends, neighbors, and caregivers are the culprits in 55 percent of the cases, according to “Broken Trust: Elders, Family, and Finances,’’ a report from the MetLife Mature Market Institute, produced in conjunction with the National Committee for the Prevention of Elder Abuse and Virginia Tech University.

Law enforcement and securities officials say the recession is pushing more people to steal from well-off seniors.

“Elder financial abuse is becoming the crime of the 21st century,’’ said Fred Joseph, president of the North American Securities Administrators Association.

The annual loss is estimated to be at least $2.6 billion, according to the report. The typical victim of elder abuse is a woman over 75 who lives alone.

Financial abuse of elders can happen in a number of ways, according to the National Committee for the Prevention of Elder Abuse:

  • Forging an older person’s signature, or getting a senior to sign a deed, will, or power of attorney through deception, coercion, or undue influence.

  • Using property without permission.

  • Promising lifelong care in exchange for money or property - and not following through on the promise.

  • Using credit cards without authorization.

  • Engaging in confidence crimes (“cons’’) in which victims are scammed by gaining their trust.

  • Following are some red-flag warnings to help spot financial abuse:

  • Is the senior receiving information about or being asked to invest in unregistered securities or start-up companies? Check with your state securities regulator.

  • Is the investment high-risk or speculative, such as rare metals or currency trading?

  • Has the senior been asked to sign blank paperwork or to give discretionary authority over accounts to an adviser?

  • Is the senior complaining that an investment adviser won’t supply account statements?

  • Has the senior made out a check directly to the adviser or broker for the purchase of an investment?

  • For more information, go to www.nasaa.org and search for “Senior Investor Resource Center.’’

    To report elder abuse you can contact an Adult Protective Services office at www.apsnetwork.org.

    “This type of crime just sets me off,’’ Joseph said. “You get victims who are in their 70s and 80s being taken for their life savings. What do they do? They can’t earn it back.’’

    If you suspect a senior is being exploited, report it - even if the suspected scoundrel is a family member.

    Michelle Singletary is a columnist for The Washington Post. She can be reached at singletarym@washpost.com.