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Elder financial abuse: How to spot it and what to do about it

Two senior multi-ethnic woman, one Caucasian and the other African American, sitting in back yard by water enjoying each other's company. They are looking at each other, laughing.

“The person on the other end of the phone sounds believable and says I owe money to the government.”

“That email telling me I won a lottery really looks official.”

“That investment deal has a can’t-miss windfall.”

All of these are different approaches to the same thing: Scams being used to defraud senior citizens of their money. People of every economic background, educational level and age are susceptible to fraud, but seniors tend to be more vulnerable.

American senior citizens have reportedly lost more than $36 billion through financial abuse. About $13 billion of that is linked directly to identity theft and send-money scams, and such abuse is only expected to grow as Baby Boomers reach their silver years.

Protecting you and your assets are top priorities to our bankers. That includes preserving your sense of security and improving your awareness. Scams take many forms, but these are some of the most common:

Abuse of Power of Attorney and Authorization. This is one of the fastest growing crimes in the United States. Granting power of attorney to someone gives them considerable power over your finances and property. POA abuse is misused by the attorney, making a decision not in the donor’s best interest. If the donor is unable to monitor the attorney’s actions, it makes it easy for an attorney to abuse the authority.

Lottery or investment scams. These can be emails, letters or phone calls that tell people they’ve won a large amount of money in a lottery or raffle but they need to send some smaller amount of money to cover entry or processing fees. Often phony checks are sent to convince the victim the money is coming, which it never does. Or scammers will ask for money up front to take advantage of a great investment with guaranteed returns.

Imposter scams. The most popular one has someone calling pretending to be an IRS or government agent, who says there are unpaid taxes or fines that the senior or his children owe. They threaten action unless cash is wired or the senior buys gift cards and reads the card information over the phone to them. Other times, fraudsters pretend to be a grandchild in financial trouble and ask for money to be wired.

Sweetheart scams. Scammers use social media to get information about the victim and then strike up a conversation, preying on the fact that elderly tend to be lonely. From months to a year or more, they carry on conversations to build trust. Once they’re considered a “friend,” they ask for money to help them or someone they know. The amounts asked for start small and get larger. Nigeria is the largest country of origin for this type of scam, but seniors might not realize their “friend” is outside the United States.

Known-person fraud. This type of fraud is hard to identify and combat because victims’ money is going to people they know – relatives, close friends, those with power of attorney over their estates, etc. These familiar thieves play on a person’s sympathies or abuse access to personal information or accounts to get what they want.

Identify the symptoms

There are clear signs that a relative or friend is suffering elder financial abuse, and you can protect someone you love or care about by paying attention to these signs.

Does he or she want to send or withdraw money from their accounts right away? Are they making payments that are out of the norm from their usual spending patterns? Look out for suspicious or forged
signatures on checks, accounts or certificates of deposit being closed without regard for penalties, or altered wills or trusts. Here are some other actions that seniors being victimized by fraud might do:

    • Sudden changes in a bank account or banking practice, including an unexplained withdrawal of large sums of money by a person accompanying the elder.
    • The inclusion of additional names on an elder’s bank signature card.
    • Unauthorized withdrawal of the elder’s funds using the elder’s ATM card.
    • Abrupt changes in a will or other financial documents.
    • Unexplained disappearance of funds.
    • Missing personal property or valuable possessions.
    • Discovery of an elder’s signature being forged for financial transactions or for the titles of his/her possessions.
    • Sudden appearance of previously uninvolved relatives claiming their rights to an elder’s affairs and possessions.
    • Unexplained sudden transfer of assets to a family member or someone outside the family.
    • Missing or redirected mail.
    • The provision of services that are not necessary.
    • An elder’s report of financial exploitation.

Make a difference

Talking with your elderly friend or relative isn’t prying, it’s showing you care. If something seems amiss where money is concerned, ask what the money is being used for. If they seem uncommunicative or
if their reasons for how they’re using the money seem suspect, circle back around later in the conversation and ask them again about it. If their story changes within the same conversation, it’s worth
investigating further. Let them know that anyone can be a victim, no matter their intelligence or financial situation.

Protect your information

It pays to be vigilant with our information no matter how believable people or emails seem. Never send personal or financial information or passwords through email. If you suspect something is wrong, call the company directly, and never click on links in emails you don’t trust or aren’t sure about.

Don’t be afraid to talk to a banker or a trusted friend, especially before you share any personal information. If you do release your information, don’t let embarrassment about a situation deter you from getting advice or help because time is of the essence to stop a fraud-related theft.

As bankers, we are aware of the latest scams because we consider it our duty to protect your financial well-being. For instance, if you notice the stamp on the back of a cleared check bears the name PacNet Services, Ltd., it is a strong signal you might be the victim of fraud. Some companies have a third party process their checks. Therefore, the company endorsing a check could be different than the company to which the check was written. PacNet, a Canadian company, has been accused of being a payment processor for countless thieves and had its assets frozen by the U.S. Justice Department, but it still operates internationally.

Take the time to know the symptoms and the scams. In the end, you’ll better be able to keep your money where it belongs – with you.

Where to get help

Adult Protective Services (APS) can help people at least 60 years of age with a cognitive impairment who are being abused, neglected or exploited and live outside of a nursing home or assisted-living facility. You also can contact local county departments of Ohio Job and Family Services, the Ohio Adult Protective Services ombudsman at 800-536-5891 or the Ohio attorney general’s office at 800-282-0515. APS has more resources and can marshal health and law enforcement officials to curb abuse.

You can find contact information at eldercare.gov, a public service provided by the U.S. Administration on Aging, or by calling 800-677-1116. For cases of identity theft, contact your local police and the Federal Trade Commission. If the loss involves funds held in our bank or another bank or credit union, report the problem to the financial institution immediately.

Make a difference

Talking to your elderly friend or relative isn’t prying, it’s protecting them. If something seems amiss where money is concerned, ask how they are using the money. If they seem reticent to respond or if their reasons for how they’re using the money seem suspect, circle back later in the conversation and ask them again. If their story changes within the same conversation, it’s worth investigating further. Let them know that anyone can be a victim, no matter their intelligence or financial situation.

Protect your Information

It pays to be vigilant with our information no matter how believable people or emails seem. Never send personal or financial information, or passwords through email. If you suspect something is wrong, call the company directly, and never click on links in emails you don’t trust or aren’t sure about. Don’t be afraid to talk to a banker or a trusted friend, especially before you send off any personal information. If you do release your information, don’t let embarrassment about a situation deter you from getting advice or help. Time is of the essence to stop fraud. As bankers, we stay informed of the latest frauds because we consider it our duty to protect your financial well-being. Take the time to know the symptoms and the scams. In the end you’ll better be able to keep your money where it belongs – with you.

If you have concerns you, a friend or a family member are a victim of financial fraud, call us at 888.791.8633. We’re here to help.

Adult Protective Services may be contacted if you suspect a client at least 60 years old is being abused, neglected or exploited. You can contact the county departments of Ohio Job and Family Services, the Ohio Adult Protective Services ombudsman at 800.536.5891 or the Ohio attorney general’s office at 800.282.0515. APS has more resources and can marshal health and law enforcement officials to curb abuse.

In most cases, you would contact Adult Protective Services, generally a part of your county or state department of social services. You can find contact information at www.eldercare.gov, a public service provided by the U.S. Administration on Aging, or by calling 1-800-677-1116. For cases of identity theft, contact your local police and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). If the loss involves funds held in a financial institution, such as a bank or credit union, report the problem to the institution immediately.

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