Elder abuse, like many other forms of domestic abuse, is an often hidden phenomenon that affects hundreds of thousands of older Americans.  Elder abuse can take many forms, from physical to sexual to neglect. And it can even take the form of financial exploitation. In fact, every year, older Americans are robbed of $3 billlion thanks to this type of elder abuse- and this is just the amount that is reported. 

The people who commit this crime can be a stranger to the victim, such as an aide that comes into the home to assist with daily activities, or they can even be someone that the victim knows and trusts, such as a friend or family member.

Experts believe financial exploitation of older people is a problem that is growing as America ages, and that it is significantly underreported. “It’s such a hidden crime. Within families, victims don’t want to prosecute,” says Julie Schoen of the National Center on Elder Abuse. “There’s a huge gap in our system when it comes to recording these crimes. We need better research.” Ninety percent of perpetrators are family members or other people the victim knows well, such as caretakers, neighbors or friends, the NCEA estimates. “As we get older and our brains change, we find it more difficult to track financial details,” says Bonnie Brandl, director of the National Clearinghouse on Abuse in Later Life. “That makes us more susceptible.” And older people can lose touch with those who might protect them. “Bad actors will isolate victims so they don’t get caught and can take advantage of them,” says Amy Mix, an attorney with the AARP Legal Counsel for the Elderly.

How to Prevent It

Here are steps experts agree will help protect you and your aging loved ones.

  • When a person is still mentally sharp, help him or her make a plan that designates power of attorney and health care directives. “We tend to want to keep financial matters private, but if we don’t have those discussions, that’s what blows things apart,” Schoen says.
  • Stay connected with older loved ones through regular phone calls, visits or emails.
  • Develop a relationship with your parent’s caregiver. “They’ll be less likely to financially exploit Mother because they know you’re paying attention,” Brandl says.
  • Become a “trusted contact” to monitor bank account and brokerage activity.
  • Sign up for a service such as EverSafe to track financial activity and notify an advocate of unusual withdrawals or spending.
  • Set up direct deposit for checks so others don’t have to cash them.
  • Do not sign any documents that you don’t understand.