Jose Luis Pelaez—Getty Images/Blend Images
By Megan Leonhardt
November 15, 2016

If your grandmother were getting ripped off, would you know about it?

A new survey of caregivers finds that about 37% of seniors have experienced financial abuse — almost double the estimated 20% that Allianz Life found when it last conducted its survey in 2014. And many of them aren’t talking about it.

“Most people think it will never happen to them. But it does. And it does on a daily, hourly basis,” says Debra Whitman, AARP’s chief public policy officer.

Victims of elder financial abuse lose about $36,000, on average, Allianz estimates — although other surveys have found even higher rates. But even smaller loses matter. “Small amounts can have cascading impacts on financial security and stability and even their health,” Whitman says.

In addition to the financial loss, many scam victims also suffer emotional and mental trauma. “We see increased mortality — people dying soon after these attacks because of the stress, sadness and shame,” Whitman says.

More Seniors, More Decision-Making Trouble

Of course, one reason the number of victims is growing is the expanding total number of seniors — who are generally at their peak affluence right at retirement age.

Some seniors are more vulnerable because of mental health issues. An estimated 5.4 million people in the U.S. have Alzheimer’s disease, which can seriously compromise the ability to make sound financial decisions. (The number is expected to more than double by 2050.)

But even without dementia, the aging brain may have trouble making sound financial decisions, doctors say. Many older Americans suffer a pattern of imprudent financial decision-making known as age-associated financial vulnerability, explains Mark Lachs, co-chief of geriatrics and gerontology at Weill Cornell Medical College.

In a paper published in October, Lachs notes that this defined pattern of imprudent financial decision-making can be particularly insidious for older adults, who may not have the time to recover from losses.

And financial abuse often goes unreported, says Whitman — because the victims suffer guilt and shame as well as fear around having to talk about it.

While regulators and financial companies have attempted to put some senior safeguards in place to help curtail elder financial abuse, there are several ways seniors can help themselves.

Don’t Answer the Phone …

“Be very careful about how you answer your phone and who you talk to,” Whitman says. When most of the baby boomers were growing up, the people who called them were friends and family. That’s radically changed, with the rise of robo calls and phone scams making it much more likely that the person on the other end of the line is not your friend.

AARP, in conjunction with Microsoft, found that tech support scams alone resulted in losses of more than $1.5 billion from more than 3.3 million people in the U.S. this year. If you don’t recognize the number, just don’t pick up — and if the caller leaves a message asking you to respond with information, call the number that is on your regular statements, rather than any number left on your voicemail.

… or Respond to Emails Seeking Personal Info

The same is true with emails, Whitman says. Don’t reply directly to an email asking for information. Instead, go to the company’s website and find a customer service number or email to directly contact them.

When you do reach out, don’t volunteer any personal information. Instead, ask if they contacted you, and only provide any information they request directly.

Share Access — But Limit It

It can help to have an extra set of eyes monitoring the situation, especially if you’ve been a victim of financial fraud in the past. Allianz found that about 40% of caregivers say their clients have suffered abuse more than once.

Many financial institutions allow you to set up view-only access, so that family and friends can monitor for suspicious activity — without being able to access the funds. “Have somebody else with at least view access to account information,” says Allianz CEO Walter White.

Why limit access? Unfortunately, family and friends are not always trustworthy. “We know that caregivers can be protection from abuse, [but] there’s also strong evidence the caregivers themselves are the ones perpetrating the crimes against the person they are supposed to be caring for,” Whitman warns.

Watch for Local Scams

“Many times scammers go around a particular neighborhood on small-scale scams,” Whitman says — so monitor information on fraud in your area. AARP’s Fraud Watch Network informs people (and local law enforcement) about fraudulent activity; use this map to find reported scams near you.

Hire a Monitor

You can subscribe to a service like EverSafe, which scans financial and credit records daily for suspicious activity. If potential fraud is identified, the company will alert both you and any trusted contacts you’ve identified.

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