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Financial Exploitation Among Older Adults - What to Watch for and When to Intervene

The vast majority of seniors, and even many with mild levels of dementia, are able to make sound financial decisions and control their money responsibly. However, an increasing prevalence of financial exploitation in the US throughout the last couple of decades is highlights the increased importance of being aware of when an older adult may be falling victim, and being aware of when it is time to intervene.

Financial exploitation of an elderly adult is a form of elder abuse.

Whenever an adult is suspected of being a victim of financial exploitation, a report should be made to their state's Adult Protective Services department which is charged with investigating financial fraud and abuse. In many cases, fraud may continue for years before being discovered and stopped, leading to significant financial burden and even ruin in some cases. Most disturbingly is that fraud can come from a variety of sources, including strangers calling on the phone to family members re-directing a person's funds for their own use. In one study by Beach, Schulz, Castle, and Rosen (2010), the researchers found that nearly 10% of adults report experiencing financial exploitation after turning 60. The most common form of scam that was reported resulted from seniors signing documents that they did not fully understand. Estimations about the prevalence of financial exploitation of seniors may actually be too low, given that studies typically rely on seniors to self-report whether they have been a victim of fraud. In other words, in adults with more significant levels of cognitive impairment, fraud may be occurring without any awareness on the part of the victim, leading them to deny being a victim in such studies.

Here are some signs to watch for that may indicate an elderly adult is being financially victimized:

1. Unexplained financial transactions

Bank and credit card statements can reveal a person's spending patterns. For adults with sound financial decision-making capacity, explaining any large or unusual transactions should be fairly simple. If an adult is surprised by the expenditure or can't recall why or how the expenditure took place, it may signal a need to look more closely for patterns of unexplained financial transactions.

2. Abrupt changes in financial behavior

If an adult has been historically conservative with their money, and then suddenly begins making extravagant purchases or giving away money, additional attention may need to be paid to where the person's money is going.

3. Unexpected changes in estate planning documents

What happens to a person's assets after death is an important decision with significant implications. If a person's assets were initially set to pass to close family members, but are then discovered to pass to a "friend" that came into the person's life recently, it may signal that exploitation has occurred.

4. Unexplained financial hardships

For adults that have lived within their means for many years suddenly begin over-drafting accounts, reaching credit card limits, having utilities shut off, or affording necessities like food or clothing, it may mean that funds are being inappropriately diverted.

What to do if financial exploitation is suspected

1. Tell the potential victim you are concerned and why

Being transparent with your concerns with the person can go a long way in preserving their trust and minimizing the risk of resistance to help. You can use bank statements or credit card statements to point out abnormal transactions, or other important documents that reveal a change in behavior. Being transparent doesn't guarantee the victim with agree with you, but it is important for them to have a voice in the process of investigating the suspicion.

2. Report your suspicion to your state's Adult Protective Services (APS) division.

Financial exploitation of an elderly person or other vulnerable adult is a form of abuse, and should be reported. Once reported, APS will investigate the suspicious behavior, so it is important to provide them with as much evidence of potential exploitation as you can. If financial exploitation is identified, APS determines what services or resources are needed to stop the abuse from continuing. These services can range from minor services like chore workers or meal delivery up to pursuit of legal guardianship or institutional placement. In some cases, they can assist with filing civil or criminal charges against the perpetrator.

3. Discuss your concerns with professionals

Professionals with knowledge about financial exploitation and how to remediate it can provide important advice on steps to take. These professionals can include attorneys specializing in elder law, bankers, or financial advisors. In many instances, these professionals will request that the victim complete a neuropsychological evaluation in order to determine the level of the person's cognitive impairment, if any, and to determine if they retain decision making capacity to manage their financial affairs.

4. Limit perpetrators' access to the victim

If a victim has repeatedly given money to people calling them on the phone and posing as churches, distressed family members, or disaster relief funds, consider changing the person's phone number, or allowing phone access only with trusted persons. If a victim falls for email-based scams, consider changing their email address, or obtaining access to the victim's email account so that email can be monitored.


Being involved, proactive, and educated can help prevent, or at the very least mitigate the impact of financial exploitation on your elderly loved ones. Acting promptly can prevent further harm and help restore the elderly person's financial security and peace of mind. Always consult with professionals who specialize in elder law for the most appropriate course of action in your specific situation. At St. Louis Center for Cognitive Health, we assist by providing objective data on a person's ability to manage their own financial affairs, and assisting attorneys and probate courts resolve questions surrounding guardianship and other decision-making capacities. Call us today to learn more 314-833-4210.

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