If it could happen to the heiress Brooke Astor, it could happen to anyone. Anthony Marshall, Astor’s son, is on trial in New York, accused of misusing his aged mother’s nearly $200 million fortune prior to her death at age 105 in 2007 — and tricking the Alzheimer’s patient into altering her will in his favor.
Marshall’s guilt remains in dispute. But there’s no doubt that systematic theft from elderly Americans by disreputable financial advisers and family members, among others, is on the rise. Total losses are estimated to be in the billions each year.
Some victims never realize that they are being robbed, while others do not wish to press charges against family members or feel powerless to stop the thefts.
Seniors suffering from dementia or living in isolation are at the greatest risk — but anyone can be a target.
Good news: There are ways to prevent a loved one — or yourself — from becoming a victim of elder financial abuse.
TO PROTECT YOURSELF
Here are five ways to identify financial abuse in your own life and prevent further damage…Review your bank account and credit card statements, paying particular attention to any automated teller machine (ATM) withdrawals and cash advances that you do not recall taking… and checks paid to “cash” that you do not recall writing.Review investment account statements for questionable withdrawals and transfers.Scan your credit report at least once each year for loans or credit cards that you did not sign up for.
Helpful: Request one free credit report each year from each of the three credit reporting agencies at AnnualCreditReport.com.Keep careful track of any valuables in your home, including cash, jewelry, stamp or coin collections, art and antiques. If something goes missing, mention it to caregivers and family members who have access to your home. Be suspicious if one of them tries to convince you that you must have misplaced it… that you must have forgotten that you gave the item away… or that the missing item has been moved to a bank safe-deposit box or sent out for cleaning.Be very suspicious of relatives, caregivers or anyone else who asks you to sign legal documents and tells you there’s no need to read them first. He/she might be trying to get you to take out a loan or tap your home equity with him as beneficiary … or to get you to amend your will or estate plan in his favor.
TO PROTECT RELATIVES AND FRIENDS
Watch for these warning signs that someone you care about might be the victim of elder financial abuse…
A family member or caregiver makes it difficult for you to see this friend or relative or insists on being present at all times during visits.The friend or relative starts spending less time with friends or engaged in social activities and more time at home. The abuser might be preventing or discouraging the elderly victim from going out.He seems anxious or fearful around one particular family member or caregiver.The person’s appearance is increasingly disheveled. This can suggest that the relative or caregiver whose task it is to look after this person does not really have his best interests in mind.Valuables are missing from the person’s home.Unpaid bills or even collection notices pile up on the elderly person’s desk.He unexpectedly changes attorneys or financial advisers. An unscrupulous relative might be steering him away from professionals who truly have his best interests in mind.The person answers all questions about money topics by saying that a particular relative or caregiver is handling them.
If you think that you might be the victim of financial abuse, contact an attorney, or the local Adult Protective Services or the police. At least take steps to stop further abuse by cutting off the thief’s access to your accounts and contacting lenders or credit bureaus to warn of fraudulent activity.
If you are concerned that an elderly relative or friend might be the victim of financial abuse, proceed with caution. Though you are trying to help, the potential victim might think you are snooping into financial matters that are none of your business…or you might make him feel too embarrassed about being victimized to discuss the problem.
Besides, there could be innocent explanations for what appear to be indications of elder financial abuse. The suspected victim might be giving away cash or valuables to avoid estate taxes…he might be experiencing financial problems or depression unrelated to theft…or the relative or caregiver who seems controlling might just be protective. Before taking any action, take these steps to prove your suspicions…Confirm the ownership status of the person’s home. A thief might trick an elderly home owner into signing over the deed or taking out a second mortgage with the money going to the thief… or the thief might simply forge the necessary documents.
Real estate ownership is a matter of public record. Contact the elderly person’s town or county and ask how you can track down title information. Some jurisdictions provide access to title information online.Offer to help the relative or friend review his credit report “for errors.” Explain that you recently reviewed your own report, so you know what to look for. This approach minimizes the implication that you think the elderly person is not competent to handle his own financial affairs.Similarly, ask him to let you review bank and credit card statements with his help to search for fraudulent checks and charges. Say you found errors in your own accounts, so you know how to correct them.Try to spend time with him one-on-one, and see how the suspected financial abuser reacts. If this person tells you that your friend or relative doesn’t want to see you, respond that you would need to be told this directly.
Helpful: Keep careful notes of the dates and times when you request to see the person and what you were told when you were turned away. These denials of access could help you make a legal case against the financial abuser later.
STOPPING THE ABUSE
If your investigation suggests that financial abuse is occurring, don’t just tell the elderly relative. The thief could claim that you are attempting to take control of the elderly person’s finances for your own gain.
Better: Present your evidence of financial abuse to the victim’s other close family members and friends. Then warn the victim or confront the thief as a group.
At this point, suggest that the victim contact an attorney or the police — or at least deny the thief further access to his home and assets. If the victim resists your suggestions…Contact the local Department of Social Services office in the victim’s town or county and ask to have an Adult Protective Services employee perform an in-home visit. These visits send the message that someone is watching, which often is enough to scare off those who financially take advantage of the elderly.Arrange for a “durable power of attorney” (the legal right to handle this person’s financial affairs on his behalf), and ask the victim to authorize you to monitor his finances. Since the power of attorney is durable, it would continue in effect if the elderly person subsequently loses capacity.
Last resort: If all else fails, consult an attorney about bringing a guardianship proceeding. This means that the courts will determine whether the individual has the capacity to make his own financial decisions, and, if necessary, appoint a guardian to act on his behalf.