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The first signs of elder financial abuse are easy to miss. Maybe there's a new, overeager "best friend" who gives off a strange vibe, excessive secrecy around a new friend, or paranoia or anger when talking about money.  It is very rare to discover the sudden withdrawal of large sums of money.  
A perfect storm of factors make America's elderly the target of a fast-growing, insidious crime. Americans are living longer, and with the shift from pensions and toward retirement savings, they face an array of complex choices about what to do with their money. Making matters worse, as each year passes, their cognitive abilities tend to decline while the stakes of their money decisions get higher. Criminals always steal from where the money is, and scam artists always flock to wherever financial confusion can be found.
MetLife estimates that older Americans are cheated out of $2.9 billion annually. In another study, one in 20 older adults report being victimized by "financial mistreatment" at some point in the recent past.  The average loss is between $100,000 to $150,000, an entire lifetime of savings, with no opportunity to rebuild their savings. 
Variations on a Scam
There's a wide range of crimes older Americans face. Some crimes or deceptions are committed by family, friends or trusted advisors. It is not uncommon to hear about a neighbor, acting as a caregiver, stealing from someone suffered from dementia. In most cases the funds are gone forever, used it to pay for improvements on homes, and to purchase luxury items (boat, fancy car, etc.).
Elder fraud can also involve professional financial advice ranging from ill-conceived to criminal. Everyone has heard to story about elderly Americans being placed into costly annuities or bad insurance products.
The Biggest Challenge
To make matters worse, research confirms what those who would cheat older Americans know that the elderly are often the last to know their mental capacity is slipping. "Participants who suffer cognitive decline experience a reduction in their financial literacy but no change in their confidence in managing their money." That leaves children or other family members in the unenviable position of trying to wrest financial control from aging relatives who don't want the help.
Signs of Elder Abuse
The National Committee for the Prevention of Elder Abuse offers this detailed list of signs that someone might be suffering from elder abuse.
"Some of the indicators listed below can be explained by other causes or factors and no single indicator can be taken as conclusive proof," the agency cautions. "Rather, one should look for patterns or clusters of indicators that suggest a problem."
  • Unpaid bills, eviction notices or notices to discontinue utilities
  • Withdrawals from bank accounts or transfers between accounts that the older person cannot explain
  • Bank statements and canceled checks no longer come to the home
  • New "best friends"
  • Legal documents, such as powers of attorney, which the older person didn't understand at the time he or she signed them
  • Unusual activity in the older person's bank accounts including large, unexplained withdrawals, frequent transfers between accounts, or ATM withdrawals
  • The care of the elder is not commensurate with the size of his/her estate
  • A caregiver expresses excessive interest in the amount of money being spent on the older person
  • Belongings or property are missing
  • Suspicious signatures on checks or other documents
  • Absence of documentation about financial arrangements
  • Implausible explanations given about the elderly person's finances by the elder or the caregiver
  • The elder is unaware of or does not understand financial arrangements that have been made for him or her.