Who Is Stealing Grandma’s Money?

A new survey finds one in 20 older Americans have been financially exploited, often by their own family.

Brian Resnick
Aug. 4, 2014, 1 a.m.

Grandma is an easy tar­get.

She has some money saved up—at least more than you do—and has be­come more lonely and isol­ated in her old age, mak­ing her vul­ner­able for ex­ploit­a­tion. So when she sends you out to the bank on an er­rand, you take a little ex­tra with­draw­al for your­self.

This isn’t a hy­po­thet­ic­al scen­ario. It’s a re­sponse from one of the largest sur­veys on eld­er fin­an­cial ex­ploit­a­tion to date, which finds the people most likely to ex­ploit the eld­erly for money are of­ten the people closest to the vic­tim.

The study, re­cently pub­lished in the Journ­al of Gen­er­al In­tern­al Medi­cine, sur­veyed 4,000 older adults in New York state. Of those who re­por­ted be­ing ex­ploited, more than half (57.9 per­cent) of their per­pet­rat­ors were fam­ily mem­bers, and a total of 24.6 of the per­pet­rat­ors were the vic­tims’ own adult chil­dren. Friends were the next-largest cat­egory, and home-care aides were the smal­lest group of the known per­pet­rat­ors.

Over­all, 5 per­cent (one in 20) of those sur­veyed ex­per­i­enced at least one in­cid­ent of fin­an­cial ex­ploit­a­tion since turn­ing 60, with 2.7 per­cent re­port­ing an in­cid­ent with­in the pre­vi­ous year. “This rate, coupled with the ex­po­nen­tially grow­ing num­ber of eld­erly in the U.S., forms the basis for a bur­geon­ing pub­lic health crisis in need of im­me­di­ate at­ten­tion,” the au­thors write.

Ac­cord­ing to the Na­tion­al In­sti­tute of Justice, “the United States has no na­tion­al re­port­ing mech­an­ism to track the fin­an­cial ex­ploit­a­tion of eld­ers,” which makes stud­ies like this all the more im­port­ant. And be­cause the sur­vey ex­cluded re­spond­ents in nurs­ing homes or with men­tal impair­ments—both are factors that may con­trib­ute ad­di­tion­al risk for ex­ploit­a­tion—the au­thors of the study even sug­gest that their find­ings might be un­der­rep­res­ent­ing the true num­bers. Even so, the study con­cludes, “If a new dis­ease en­tity were dis­covered that af­flic­ted nearly one in 20 adults over their older life­times and dif­fer­en­tially stuck our most vul­ner­able sub­pop­u­la­tions, a pub­lic health crisis would likely be de­clared.” 

The eld­erly are com­mon tar­gets for frauds and scams. Just this week, USA Today re­por­ted that eld­er ab­use was one of the top two fast­est-grow­ing con­sumer com­plaints in 2013. “They are of­ten the vic­tims of tech alert scams, when fraud­sters call and pre­tend to be with a com­pany such as Apple or Mi­crosoft and tell the vic­tim their com­puter has been in­fec­ted with a vir­us,” the story reads. Nurs­ing homes, the places where chil­dren send their ail­ing par­ents with the hope of keep­ing them safe, are also some­times scru­tin­ized for tak­ing ad­vant­age of their pa­tients.

Those are ex­amples of in­sti­tu­tions tak­ing ad­vant­age of seni­or cit­izens. What the Gen­er­al In­tern­al Medi­cine study sug­gests is that a lot of the ex­ploit­a­tion against the eld­erly takes place close to or in­side of the home.

The re­search­ers were look­ing for in­stances where the re­spond­ents felt ex­ploited. Ex­ploit­a­tion was defined as hav­ing ex­per­i­enced any of the fol­low­ing (from the text of the study):

1) stolen or mis­ap­pro­pri­ated money or prop­erty;

2) co­er­cion or false pre­tense res­ult­ing in sur­ren­der­ing rights, prop­erty, or sign­ing/chan­ging a leg­al doc­u­ment;

3) im­per­son­a­tion to ob­tain prop­erty or ser­vices;

4) in­ad­equate con­tri­bu­tions to­ward house­hold ex­penses, but re­spond­ent still had enough money for ne­ces­sit­ies; and

5) re­spond­ent was des­ti­tute and did not re­ceive ne­ces­sary as­sist­ance from fam­ily/friends.

When they broke the res­ults down by demo­graph­ics, they found that these trends in eld­er fin­an­cial ex­ploit­a­tion echo the pat­terns of a lot of so­ci­et­al ills—they dis­pro­por­tion­ately af­fect minor­it­ies and the poor. Blacks in the sur­vey ex­per­i­enced ex­ploit­a­tion at rates al­most three times high­er than whites—9.1 per­cent to 3.4 per­cent, re­spect­ively. A sim­il­ar but nar­row­er gap ex­ists between the rich and poor. Six and a half per­cent of those mak­ing un­der $15,000 a year ex­per­i­enced ex­ploit­a­tion, while only 3.5 per­cent of those mak­ing more than $30,000 did.

Stephanie Stamm contributed to this article.
What We're Following See More »
Priebus Asks Party to Unite Behind Trump
3 hours ago
Sanders Upsets Clinton in Indiana
4 hours ago

Despite trailing Hillary Clinton by a significant margin, Bernie Sanders wasn't going the way of Ted Cruz tonight. The Vermont senator upset Clinton in Indiana, with MSNBC calling the race at 9pm. Sanders appears poised to win by a five- or six-point spread.

Ted Cruz Bows Out, Effectively Ceding the Contest to Trump
5 hours ago

And just like that, it's over. Ted Cruz will suspend his presidential campaign after losing badly to Donald Trump in Indiana tonight. "While Cruz had always hedged when asked whether he would quit if he lost Indiana; his campaign had laid a huge bet on the state." John Kasich's campaign has pledged to carry on. “From the beginning, I’ve said that I would continue on as long as there was a viable path to victory,” said Cruz. “Tonight, I’m sorry to say it appears that path has been foreclosed."

Trump Wins Indiana, All but Seals the Nomination
5 hours ago

The Republican establishment's last remaining hope—a contested convention this summer—may have just ended in Indiana, as Donald Trump won a decisive victory over Ted Cruz. Nothing Cruz seemed to have in his corner seemed to help—not a presumptive VP pick in Carly Fiorina, not a midwestern state where he's done well in the past, and not the state's legions of conservatives. Though Trump "won't secure the 1,237 delegates he needs to formally claim the nomination until June, his Indiana triumph makes it almost impossible to stop him. Following his decisive wins in New York and other East Coast states, the Indiana victory could put Trump within 200 delegates of the magic number he needs to clinch the nomination." Cruz, meanwhile, "now faces the agonizing choice of whether to remain in the race, with his attempt to force the party into a contested convention in tatters, or to bow out and cede the party nomination to his political nemesis." The Associated Press, which called the race at 7pm, predicts Trump will win at least 45 delegates.

Inside the AP’s Election Operation
10 hours ago