By Attorney Gina C. Ziegelbauer
It seems like we’ve all received those scam calls letting you know your “vehicle warranty has expired,” “there is a problem with your credit card,” or that you need to take some type of action with regard to your social security, bank accounts, tech support, or who-knows-what. While it may be obvious to many people that these types of calls or mailings are a scam, unfortunately, fraudsters particularly target vulnerable persons who may not be able to pick up on the signs of a scam and who are more susceptible to fraud.
And while we may associate this type of financial fraud with unknown callers or internet scams, most financial exploitation happens through family members, caregivers, friends, or other trusted individuals. Because financial exploitation often happens close to home, it’s important to know the signs of financial exploitation and what you can do to avoid it.
Who is most at risk? According to the National Council on Aging, elder financial exploitation means “the misuse or withholding of an older adult’s resources by another.” Financial exploitation is a form of elder abuse. Individuals who are isolated or lonely may be more at risk of financial exploitation. Those with physical or mental disabilities may also be at increased risk. Additionally, individuals with family members who have financial or substance abuse issues may be at greater risk. And, an individual with a lack of familiarity or control over their financial matters may not even realize they are being exploited.
How do you know if you or someone you know is being financially exploited? According to the Coalition of Wisconsin Aging Group Elder Financial Empowerment Project, some warning signs of financial exploitation include:
Changes in money management. This can include changes in the individual’s money management, including changes in account balances, unusual account activity, opening or closing accounts, spending habits, missed bill payments, or disconnected utilities.
Changes in the people the individual associates with. This may involve association with people with unusual behavior, people who appear to control the individual’s actions or who try to isolate the individual, or people who withhold income or assets. Also be aware of others who pressure the individual into giving gifts, money, property, or “loans” the person has no intention of repayment.
Changes in legal documents. Newly executed documents that seem out of the ordinary, forged signatures, altered documents, pre-signed checks or withdrawal slips, or transfers made that the individual does not understand can also be warning signs.
Changes in the individual’s behavior. This may include indications of fear, shame, or humiliation, unwillingness to talk or seek help, confusion about their finances, deterioration in health condition or untreated medical conditions. Indications of other types of abuse, like missing property, physical or emotional abuse or neglect may also be warning signs that financial exploitation is taking place.
What can you do? You can report suspected financial exploitation or abuse of yourself or someone you know to police, adult protective services, local elder agencies, your attorney, or other nominated fiduciaries. Many people do not report suspected financial exploitation due to fear of retaliation, fear of losing independence, or the embarrassment of falling victim. Others may be physically or mentally unable to recognize the problem or didn’t realize what happened until much later.
To help stop financial exploitation from a current agent, you can revoke a current power of attorney, execute a new power of attorney with different agents, appoint co-agents or a corporate fiduciary, and alert your financial institutions of the change in agents or other suspicious activity. Other remedies may include court involvement through the use of a restraining order, conservatorship, or guardianship.
It’s also important to note when thinking about the risks and warning signs of financial exploitation, that some of the warning signs may be taking place for legitimate reasons, including estate planning or nursing home planning. Changes in an individual’s behavior could also be taking place due to disease progression or maybe for no reason at all other than the individual has changed their mind. Just because a family member, friend, bank teller, or health professional doesn’t understand or agree with an individual’s financial choices or the helpers or agents an individual chooses doesn’t necessarily mean financial exploitation is taking place. Overall, family members and others should value and respect older individuals’ autonomy and ability to make their own financial decisions, while also being on the lookout for suspicious activity.
Where to find more information. Check out the Coalition of Wisconsin Aging Groups (www.cwagwisconsin.org), Department of Human Services (www.dhs.wisconsin.gov), your local Aging and Disability Resource Center (ADRC), or the Greater Wisconsin Agency on Aging Resources (www.gwaar.org) for more information on financial exploitation. The Federal Trade Commission also has helpful information and resources on commons types of scams. (https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/features/feature-0030-pass-it)