In a perfect world, we are loved from birth to death. We are surrounded by people who care deeply for us and always act to benefit us.
But sometimes things are not so rosy. And sometimes things change.
But in good times and in bad, we can do some things to safeguard ourselves.
We can be aware. We can say no. We can get help.
WHAT IS FINANCIAL EXPLOITATION?
Financial exploitation is a serious problem that hurts senior citizens. It happens when someone illegally takes, misuses, or hides money, property, or other assets belonging to an elderly person. There are many ways that you can be financially exploited by all types of people.
Unfortunately, it could happen to you.
DO YOU FIT THE PROFILE OF A VICTIM OF FINANCIAL EXPLOITATION?
According to the AARP there are several profiles of “classic” victims.
- Pushover Partner: Your spouse, partner, or best friend runs up household bills or otherwise hurts your good credit. The person also somehow finagles you into buying the things he or she (and not you) wants.
- Freeloader's Favorite: You're the parent, grandparent, relative, or friend of someone who enriches himself at your expense. He'll try to make you feel guilty by telling you a hard-luck tale about facing foreclosure, losing a job, or going through a divorce.
- Human ATM: You have family members or friends who consistently dip into your wallet. They will often “borrow” money and then “forget” to repay you. Or they will call you up and tell you that their rent is due or they have no grocery money or they can’t pay their utility bills and are sitting in the dark.
WHO MIGHT TAKE FINANCIAL ADVANTAGE OF YOU?
You might be surprised! There are all types of individuals, businesses, and others who could take advantage of you. These include:
1) Family members, including sons, daughters, grandchildren, or spouses. They may:
- Have substance abuse, gambling, or other financial problems.
- Believe they will inherit money and other items when you die. They might feel that it is okay to take now what they believe will be theirs eventually.
- Fear that you will get sick and need extra medical or nursing services. They might think that you will use up all of your savings and that they will receive a smaller inheritance when you die.
- Have had a negative relationship with you and believe that you “owe” them something.
- Have negative feelings toward siblings or other family members. They might want to prevent them from acquiring or inheriting your money or other belongings.
2) Predatory individuals who seek out vulnerable seniors with the intent of exploiting them. They may:
- Profess to love you ("sweetheart scams").
- Be “new friends” who say they’ll “take care of you.”
- Ask to work for you as personal care attendants, counselors, financial advisors, and so on to gain access to your money and possessions.
- Seek you and other vulnerable seniors out by driving through neighborhoods (to find persons who are alone and isolated) or by contacting recently widowed persons they find through newspaper obituaries.
- Move from community to community to avoid being caught by the police (transient criminals)
3) Unscrupulous professionals or businesspersons, or persons posing as such. They may:
- Overcharge you for services or products.
- Use deceptive or unfair business practices.
- Use their positions of trust or respect to gain your compliance.
4) Scammers who:
- Contact you and say that you owe back taxes to the IRS and that you must give them your Social Security number, date of birth, and other information.
- Identify themselves as one of your grandchildren. They will alarm you by telling you that they are out of town and sick or without money and desperately need your help. They will tell you not to tell their parents about the situation since they wouldn’t want to worry them. They will cry and say they can only turn to you for help and that they need your credit card information.
- Call you and say that you missed jury duty and must pay a fine or go to jail. You will be asked for your credit card number.
WHY MIGHT YOU BE AT RISK?
As people grow older, they sometimes become less confident about their choices. They sometimes assume that others -- such as family members, trusted friends, and caregivers -- know better than they do. Senior citizens often reach a point where they turn over their finances to someone else to handle. They are more likely to believe that a loved one or other close acquaintance will act for their benefit.
And so often the situation works out well! The person chosen to help is a good manager and does everything to benefit you. How wonderful it is when things work out this way!
You might wonder why you and other senior citizens could be at risk. There are many reasons. Some of these reasons include:
- Many seniors do not realize the value of their assets. For example, your house, which you have owned for many years, may have gone up in value.
- As we age, we are more likely to become dependent on others for help. In time, they may come to have significant influence over us. These "helpers" often have access to our homes and assets.
- Older people typically have predictable patterns. Examples include receiving monthly checks, needing to go to the bank on a regular schedule, and having money on hand to pay for incidental expenses such as paying the yard worker.
- People who take advantage of senior citizens may assume that if their manipulative behaviors are discovered, their elderly victims will:
- be too embarrassed to say anything or to pursue legal actions
- not live long enough to follow through on legal actions
- be too physically ill to fight back
- Some older people are unsophisticated about financial matters
- Advances in technology have made managing finances more complicated
CHECKLIST: ARE YOU AT RISK?
Ask yourself these questions:
- Do you live alone or with an elderly spouse, companion, or other family member? Is the person dependent on you for financial support?
- Is someone trying to isolate you from other people?
- Does someone insist that you meet with other people only when he or she is present?
- Have you experienced a recent loss, such as the death of a spouse?
- Have you suffered a recent trauma, such as flooding or a house fire?
- Are you having health problems?
- Are you dependent on others for help?
- Are you unsure about your finances?
- Do you receive checks or other money in the mail?
- Has a family member become secretive about your finances?
- Do you have family members or friends who are unemployed?
- Do you have family members or friends who are gamblers?
- Do you have family members or friends who abuse alcohol or drugs?
- Do you use a computer?
- Do you buy things on-line?
- Do you feel isolated or alone?
- Are you depressed or unhappy?
- Do you receive phone calls offering you products or services?
- Do people stop by your house and offer you products or services?
All of these factors could put you at a higher risk for financial manipulation.
WHAT SHOULD I LOOK FOR?
You might start noticing some little things:
- You can’t find your favorite jewelry.
- Clothes seem to disappear.
- Checks are missing from your checkbook.
- Cash is missing from your wallet.
- Your medicine doesn’t last as long as it should.
- Food disappears from your refrigerator or cabinets.
Then other things just don’t seem right:
- You start receiving notices from the utility and phone companies that your bills have not been paid.
- You stop receiving bank statements, canceled checks, or other financial records that had been coming to you.
- You seem to have less money in your checking or savings accounts than you had expected.
- You are being asked to sign documents that you don’t understand.
- You notice purchases on a credit card that you didn’t buy.
- You start receiving products in the mail that you didn’t order.
- You start receiving more mail and phone calls from charities or other organizations that offer you opportunities that are “too good to be true.”
- You see financial, medical, or legal documents with “your” signature but you did not sign them.
- Family members are arguing about you.
- Family members whom you have not had much contact with suddenly start appearing to take an interest in you.
- People you don’t consider to be close acquaintances start stopping by to see you more and more often.
- People selling goods or services seem to be knocking on your door more often than before.
Perhaps all of these things can be explained. But don’t assume that everything is okay.
HOW CAN I PROTECT MYSELF FROM BECOMING A VICTIM OF FINANCIAL ABUSE?
1) Know what is going on with your finances. You can do this by:
- Looking at your bank statements and other financial documents each month. Look for items that don’t make sense to you (such as withdrawals) and talk to someone at the bank if you have questions.
- Keeping financial documents and reports in a safe place.
- Shredding items that might give someone else information about you.
- Looking at your credit card statements each month. For example, did you buy the items, visit the stores, or eat at the restaurants listed?
- Making sure that you have direct deposit for your Social Security and other monthly income checks.
- Making certain that the person you are enlisting to help you watch your finances is truly an honest, capable person who involves you in making decisions and is patient in helping you understand actions taken on your behalf.
- Having a will on record that respects your wishes.
- Consider giving a trusted family member, friend, or professional (e.g., lawyer, accountant, financial advisor) durable power of attorney. This person would act on your behalf if you are unable to do so. The person you choose should be someone who has shown excellent financial management skills in his or her own life.
2) Be careful about the information you give out about yourself. You can do this by:
- Never giving personal or financial information to someone on the phone. If the IRS, Medicare, Social Security, courthouse, or other governmental agency needs to contact you, they will send you an official letter. Information that you should not give out includes your Social Security Number, credit card information and security code, date or place of birth, mother’s maiden name, addresses you lived at in the past, names of pets, jobs you’ve held, and so on.
- Hanging up the phone. You don’t need to talk to everyone who calls you! If you are receiving junk phone calls, register your phone number at donotcall.gov or call 888-382-1222.
3) Be wary of phone scammers. You can do this by:
- Hanging up the phone. In the case of “urgent” phone calls about or from grandchildren, call the grandchild’s parents to let them know about the call. If there is a true need, they will take care of it. Chances are there is no problem and the caller was someone impersonating your grandchild.
- Hanging up the phone. Know that you would receive an official document in the mail from the courthouse, Social Security, Medicare, and other governmental agencies. Don’t ever give your credit card information to someone on the phone.
- Never agreeing to buy goods or services that have been offered to you over the phone. If you think you might be interested, have them mail you information.
- Not agreeing to donate money to charities that contact you by phone. If you think it might be a legitimate organization and one that you might be interested in supporting, ask them to mail you information.
4) Be skeptical of strangers who knock on your door. You can do this by:
- Never inviting strangers into your house.
5) Not agreeing to buy goods or services from people who stop by your house. If you are interested in what they are offering, ask them to submit a bid in writing, including information about their license number, proof that they are bonded and insured and approved by the State Attorney General’s Office to do work in West Virginia, proof of insurance and bonding, the specific job or product (exactly what will be done), costs (wages, materials, fees, permits, etc.), when they will start the job, how long it will take to do the job, references , guarantees, and contact information. Check with the Better Business Bureau to make sure that the business has a good rating.
6) If you receive home care services, make sure to use a reputable agency. The agency should be bonded and should carry plenty of insurance. Try to get recommendations on the agency itself. Ask specific questions about the agency’s background check procedures.
7) Be cautious of people who suddenly appear in your life. You can do this by:
- Asking yourself why someone is suddenly interested in helping you or being your friend.
- Checking references for people you hire to help you.
- Never hiring someone you have not talked to personally.
IF YOU SUSPECT THAT YOU ARE BEING FINANCIALLY MANIPULATED, WHAT CAN YOU DO ABOUT IT? WHO CAN YOU TURN TO FOR HELP?
Fortunately, you have some options. You can contact:
- State Long-Term Care Ombudsman
Suzanne E. Messenger
9541 Middletown Mall
Fairmont, WV 26554
Legal Aid of West Virginia
Charleston, WV 25301
WHAT SHOULD YOU EXPECT ONCE YOU TELL SOMEONE ABOUT IT?
Know that action will be taken on your behalf. Depending on which agency you contact, different steps may be taken to help you but the goal is the same – namely, to protect you.
Adult Protective Services is a division of the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources. Financial exploitation is a form of abuse and neglect, especially if it results in a person being in danger of losing shelter, food, or other necessities. If you believe that someone is taking advantage of you, a friend, neighbor, or relative by financially exploiting them – or putting them in any kind of harm or danger - you can call APS and report the matter. APS will listen to your concerns and then decide how to best handle the situation. They may call in the police or prosecutors as well. If it is determined that a crime has been committed, APS will work with law enforcement to make sure the perpetrator is prosecuted.
State Long-Term Care Ombudsmen are the agents and representatives for all persons who reside in a long-term care facility. If you or someone you care about lives in a nursing home, for example, and have become a victim of financial exploitation, call the regional ombudsman for your area, or the State Long-Term Care Ombudsman, or the Long-Term & Elder Care (Ombudsman) Director. These folks will help contact APS, police, and prosecutors and even lawyers who can assist the victim and help seek recovery.
Lawyer Referral Services – To protect you and other citizens, the West Virginia Legislature recently enacted legislation that creates a private, civil cause of action for financial exploitation. The WV Lawyer Referral Service, Tuesday Legal Connect, West Virginia Senior Legal Aid, the State Long-Term Care Ombudsman or Legal Aid of West Virginia may be able to assist you in a civil action, refer you to a private attorney who can help you, or guide you in making decisions related to recovering your assets if you have been a victim of financial exploitation.
The West Virginia Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division assists folks who have fallen victim to scam artists. If you have become a victim of a scam – for example, if someone has asked you to pay for a tax lien, a criminal penalty, or other fine that you knew nothing about - call the Attorney General’s office. They have an entire division devoted to consumer protection and will work with the victims to find the scammers and recover the stolen funds.
CAN THERE BE A HAPPY ENDING AND WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO GET IT TO HAPPEN?
Absolutely! Keep in mind that financial exploitation is a crime and is taken seriously by our West Virginia law enforcement and legal systems. The consequences to the person stealing someone else’s money or assets can include jail time and required payment of restitution. In addition, the new civil cause of action for financial exploitation permits the victim to sue the bad guys directly and recover up to three times the amount of loss as damages, plus attorney’s fees and costs. It is well worth your while to speak up!
But in order to fix a situation, you must first be AWARE of financial exploitation, whether personally or on behalf of someone else. You don’t like to think that someone would take advantage of you but you must be aware that you might find yourself in such a situation. Educate yourself – read articles and watch television shows on the subject, talk to trusted family members and friends, and attend free seminars presented by networks such as AARP, the Coalition Against Domestic Violence, the West Virginia Financial Exploitation Task Force, the Attorney General, the Federal Trade Commission, or Legal Aid of West Virginia. Learn to RECOGNIZE financial exploitation. REPORT it to the appropriate authorities so that something can be done.
Ignoring the problem will not fix it! There are many resources available that can stop financial exploitation before it ruins your life or the lives of others you care about. It only takes one phone call to any of the listed agencies to ensure that help is on the way.