As more than 10,000 Americans join the 65-and-over club daily, financial exploitation of the elderly is becoming increasingly more common and states are making moves to protect their senior citizens. Financial abuse, one of the four types of elder abuse (the other three include sexual abuse, physical abuse and emotional abuse) involves the “illegal or improper use of a senior citizen’s funds, property or assets, as well as fraud or identity theft perpetrated against older adults,” according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Currently 33 states have laws directly addressing financial abuse of the elder – a nine-state increase since 2015.
Advocates say that the largest problem with prosecuting financial abuse of the elderly is that it often goes unreported. First, many elderly victims do not even know that a crime has been committed. For example, Mariana Cooper, an elderly widow living by herself, gave a $217,000 loan to a woman who had slyly gained her trust. It was not until six months after she realized she was not going to be repaid that Ms. Cooper alerted the police. Even then, Ms. Cooper only filed a report at the urging of her daughter who, again, only found out until six months after-the-fact. Telling her story to the New York Times, she said she felt because she freely gave the money away that no crime had been committed and she was too ashamed to tell her family how she had been cruelly defrauded.
According to experts on elder abuse, this type of situation is very common. Elderly victims often blame themselves and keep the abuse a secret out of a sense of personal shame. In other, even sadder situations, the person may be financially exploited by a caretaker or family member. In these situations, the elderly victim may feel that if he or she reports the abuse then it may result in relocating to a nursing home or being cut-off from family.
Thankfully, states are stepping up by both increasing visibility of elder abuse and strengthening penalties for crimes against the elderly. In 2016 alone, nine states expanded their elder abuse laws. The problem is also receiving attention on the federal level. The Justice Department has created an online training program for prosecutors on the subject and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has create a list of tips for bank tellers to spot potential crimes against the elderly, to give two examples. Already costing America’s senior citizens $2.9 billion each year, experts predict the problem will only grow worse as the number of older, wealthier Americans increase. The government should be prepared to respond.