It’s Not Your Fault: Surviving the Devastation of Financial Exploitation

The poster in the hospital room was jarring. It asked: “Does your partner or caregiver take your money or Social Security, make you ask for money, or refuse to give you money?” After a few more questions, it said “If you answered yes …, you are experiencing abuse.”

Why would a hospital post such a disturbing message on the back of the patient’s door? Probably because it is such an important question to ask. The problem of elder abuse is far too common. About 1 in 10 older Americans have experienced some form of elder abuse – defined as abuse, neglect, or financial exploitation. This is a growing concern in metro Atlanta, where 1 in 4 of us will be age 60 or older by 2030.

Who gets financially exploited?

Nationally, estimated costs of financial abuse and fraud against older individuals are as high as $36 billion dollars each year. The risk is especially high for people who have Alzheimer’s disease and related dementia.

And, financial exploitation is an equal opportunity problem. From the wealthy (think New York aristocrat Brooke Aster), to the famous (think actor Mickey Rooney), to those who have never been in the public eye or have only meager resources, the risk of an older person being financially exploited is high.

Who exploits older persons?

Sometimes we hear about financial exploitation resulting from a scam. And they are numerous. Imposters calling and pretending to be Social Security Administration employees, then asking for payment to reactivate an account and stealing Social Security numbers. Callers posing as a grandchild in a dire financial emergency and asking for money. Today’s scammers are creative, targeted, and relentless.

But imposters aren’t the only threat to an older person’s wallet. Tragically, the most common exploiters are family members, friends, and caregivers. This is probably why the hospital poster specifically asked about partners and caregivers.

It’s not your fault!

After a list of questions, the poster said: “Please know that it’s not your fault! You are not alone, and you can get help.” What a critical message.

If survivors of abuse feel embarrassed by being victimized or fear that they’ll lose their independence if the exploitation is discovered, they may be reluctant to report the abuse. In fact, elder abuse is seriously underreported. One study found that for every elder abuse case known to authorities, 24 were never reported. And for financial exploitation cases, the reporting is downright rare: for every report made, another 44 were unknown to authorities.

But if individuals or people who care about them don’t ever report the problem, individuals may not get access to the support they need to recover from the exploitation. Plus, law enforcement can’t respond to the criminal activity. And policymakers won’t have an accurate sense of how serious and widespread this problem is for older persons.

What to look for

Here are some warning signs for financial exploitation:

  • Unusual activity in bank accounts or money management, including large or unexplained withdrawals
  • Unusual or sudden changes in a will or other financial documents
  • Suspicious signatures on checks or other financial documents
  • Sudden insufficient fund activity or unpaid billsperson paying with credit card
  • Bank statements that no longer go to the customer’s home
  • A caretaker, relative, or friend who suddenly begins conducting financial transactions without proper authority

If you see any of these signs, you should consider making a report of suspected abuse:

  • Talk with the person you suspect is being abused to get their perspective on the situation.
  • Always, if you or someone you know is in a life-threatening situation or immediate danger, contact 911.
  • Report your concerns or suspicions (see details about who investigates the reports under “How to get help” below). Don’t assume that someone will or has already reported the suspected abuse. You won’t have to prove that abuse occurred; that’s what investigators are for.

How to prevent financial exploitation

If you are being financially exploited, remember it isn’t your fault. But you can still take steps to be vigilant and prevent it, including:

  • Don’t provide personal information such as social security or bank account numbers over the phone or to anyone you don’t know and trust.
  • Ensure that legal documents are in place and current in order to protect your wishes. If you have a power of attorney, be sure it is assigned to someone you trust.
  • Work with a financial advisor before making large purchases or investments.
  • Stay engaged in your community. Someone who is active, engaged, and involved is at lower risk for abuse.

How to get help

The good news is that there is help.

To report abuse, neglect, or financial exploitation (in Georgia):

  • Emergencies should be reported to 911 for immediate help.
  • Adult protective services for suspicious activity in the community:
  • Healthcare Facilities Regulation Division for activities in licensed facilities, like nursing homes or assisted living:
  • Local police are another important place to report since elder abuse is a crime.

To report outside of Georgia, find information on the US Department of Justice website.

To learn about services to help you stay independent and safe at home, take a Money Smart for Older Adults class, learn about other housing options, stay engaged in your community, and much more, contact Empowerline at (404) 463-3333 (in metro Atlanta) or or (800) 677-1116 (nationwide).

To learn tips to avoid the most common scams, see the Federal Trade Commission’s “Pass it On” information (also in Spanish).

To learn news on the newest scams, AARP provides free fraud alerts.

To help you be a smart older Georgian, the Georgia Attorney General has published the “Georgia Consumer Protection Guide for Older Adults” (soon to be released in Spanish).

Becky Kurtz

Becky Kurtz is passionate about supporting the well-being of older persons. With three decades of experience providing aging services and advocating for elder rights at federal, state, and local levels, she currently leads the work of empowerline at the Atlanta Regional Commission and directs the area agency on aging for metro Atlanta.