Elder Exploitation a Growing Problem

June 15 was World Elder Abuse Awareness Day.  On June 14, Richard Courtney attended the summer meeting of the Elder Law Committee of the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel (ACTEC) in Seattle.  A large portion of that meeting was devoted to the Committee’s ongoing study of elder abuse and exploitation.

According to the Administration for Community Living (part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services), each year an estimated 5 million older persons are abused, neglected, and exploited.  In addition, elders throughout the United States lose an estimated $2.6 billion or more annually due to elder financial abuse and exploitation, funds that could have been used to pay for basic needs such as housing, food, and medical care.  Unfortunately, no one is immune to abuse, neglect, and exploitation.  It occurs in every demographic, and can happen to anyone—a client, a family member, a neighbor, even you.  Yet it is estimated that only about one in five of those crimes are ever discovered.

The National Center for Victims of Crime spearheaded a Roundtable on November 18 and 19, 2014, focusing on serving victims of Elder Financial Exploitation.

Elder financial exploitation (EFE) comprises a broad range of conduct, some of which is criminal and some of which is not.  It includes using deception, coercion, or undue influence for financial gain; inducing cognitively impaired elders to sign deeds, wills, or powers of attorney; using property or possessions without permission; promising lifelong care in exchange for money or property and not following through on promises; forgery; confidence crimes; and “sweetheart scams.”  Whereas early research on EFE focused on abuse by family members, caregivers, friends, acquaintances, or predators who gained the trust and confidence of their victims, in recent years, greater attention has been paid to EFE by strangers, including mass-marketing fraud, predatory lending, and identity theft.

The extent of elder financial abuse and exploitation is unclear.  National studies suggest that 3.5% - 5.2% of older adults are abused annually.  Still another survey revealed that 8.4% of seniors had experienced financial exploitation since turning 60, with 2.4% reporting that they had been victimized in the past 6 months.   A study conducted in 2011 found that 2-3 million older Americans had their identities used by younger family members, mostly adult offspring, for fraudulent reasons between 2006 and 2010.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, only 17% of ID theft victims reported the incident to law enforcement in 2008.

The financial consequences to individuals include the loss of homes, life savings, pensions, and inheritances.   Victims have gone into debt, declared bankruptcy, had bank accounts frozen or closed so  that they can no longer pay bills and conduct business, been pursued by collection agencies, sued, or  charged criminally for unknowingly depositing and drawing on counterfeit checks.  Victims of identity theft are likely to have accounts opened in their names or find themselves in debt, the scammers having taken out loans in their names.  Creditors may demand payment and sell their debt to other creditors, who continue the demands and harassment.  Victims have even been arrested, jailed, and sued over debts that were not theirs.  They may be denied credit or lose access to public benefits or medical coverage.  Almost one in 10 financial abuse victims will turn to Medicaid as a direct result of their money being stolen from them.

The consequences of fraud victimization are not only financial.  It can significantly affect victims’ social, physical, mental, and spiritual well-being.  The long-term social effects may include divorce, estrangement from families, dependence on others, withdrawal from daily life, and continued risk-taking to get back lost assets.  It can result in loss of independence through the imposition of guardians or placement in long-term care facilities.  Elder abuse victims (including victims of financial abuse) are 4 times more likely to go into nursing homes.   According to one study, 90% of victims of investment fraud agree that the impact of investment fraud can be just as serious as the impact of crimes like robbery and assault.  Some experience major depressions and suicidal ideation.   Law enforcement officials have reported mass-marketing fraud cases in which victims who had suffered devastating financial losses committed or considered suicide.

The Mississippi Vulnerable Persons Act requires every person who knows of or has reason to believe that abuse, neglect or exploitation of a vulnerable person to report it.  If you observe actions that indicate abuse, neglect or exploitation of a vulnerable adult, call us to discuss the options.

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