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.
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