According to the National Committee for the Prevention of Elder Abuse, the elderly are attractive targets for financial abuse for a number of reasons, including the fact that persons over 50 control seventy percent of the nation’s wealth, and many seniors have disabilities that make them dependent upon others for help. Sometimes the abuse comes from family members, but there are also “professional predators” out there who look for ways to scam seniors and steal their money.
Just like the threat of wildfire, the threat of becoming a victim of financial abuse is frightening. But we are all familiar with the term “100 feet of defensible space,” and just like with the threat of fire, there are things that you can do to protect yourself from the risk of financial abuse.
1. Plan Ahead
Get your paperwork in order so that trustworthy agents will have the ability to assist you when you become at risk for abuse. Powers of Attorney, Advance Medical Directives and Trusts can all be very helpful in providing your agent with the ability to assist you and protect you when you need help. Preparing these documents early, when you are clearly able to make your own decisions and control who has access to your confidential information will protect you from predators when you become less able to defend yourself.
Communicate with your appointed agents regarding your desires so that they know what you want. Make sure your agents know where to find your legal documents so that if/when they are needed, they can be accessed. Provide them with information regarding your finances so that they are better able to recognize a problem if there is a sudden change in your investments or your account balances.
Introduce your agent(s) to your professional advisors (CPA, attorney, financial advisor, and banker), and your medical providers so that your agent(s) know who to turn to for assistance if someone is trying to take advantage of you.
2. Get Educated
Not understanding your financial investments or being dependent upon another to pay your bills greatly enhances your susceptibility to abuse. Many times in marriages we “divide and conquer”- each spouse assumes certain duties or chores. If you are in a marriage where one spouse handles all of the finances, it is time to share information about your accounts and develop a plan in the event the money manager dies or becomes incapacitated. Sharing the tasks of bill paying and managing investments is very important in making sure that you are each prepared in the event of a crisis.
If sharing these tasks is not practical, then decide in advance who will step in to assist the non-financial spouse if needed, and make sure the appropriate documents are in place to make this happen.
3. Avoid Isolation
Social isolation is a big risk factor for elder abuse. Having one person in charge of everything, be it your social activities, personal care or financial assistance, increases your chances of being taken advantage of. Surround yourself with multiple assistants (family members, friends, professional advisors) so that there are multiple eyes watching out for you.
4. Make Use of Technology
With the availability of on-line access to bank accounts, it may be a good idea to have someone viewing your accounts to watch for suspicious activity. This may be a family member or a financial advisor.
5. Don’t Succumb to Pressure
Don’t let anyone pressure you or rush you into giving them money, purchasing something or signing a document. Take your time and consult with others. Have the document reviewed by family members, friends or trusted professionals.
If someone is telling you that you have to act immediately or you will miss the opportunity, it is probably a bad deal for you.
6. Be Wary of a New Best Friend
Be careful of the appearance of new best friend or a previously uninvolved family member who is insistently requesting financial information, seeking access to accounts, or pressuring you into making changes to your legal documents.
7. Ask for Help
It can be hard to ask for help with our finances, or embarrassing to admit that we have been taken advantage of, but the best way to protect yourself is to let someone know that you need help. If you don’t have a family member to help you, ask your banker or CPA for assistance. Hiring a professional book keeper to assist you with your monthly bills may also be useful if you are having trouble keeping up, or there are public agencies with “Representative Payee” programs that can assist with bill paying, including Catholic Charities and the Tuolumne County Department of Social Services.
Financial Elder Abuse is a serious problem in our country, and the idea that it may happen to you is frightening. But being aware of the potential danger, and taking steps to protect yourself in advance will reduce your risk of becoming a victim.