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June 10, 2019


The ABCs of Elder Financial Exploitation

In 2011, the World Health Organization designated June 15 as World Elder Abuse Awareness Day. So each year, a number of organizations supporting the elderly run educational campaigns throughout the month of June aimed at increasing awareness of elder abuse. This crime has a number of different forms: physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, neglect and abandonment, and financial exploitation.

We covered the growing impact of elder financial abuse in terms of numbers in a post last August. That growth is being driven by a double whammy: the surge in the senior population and the proliferation of available exploitation attack channels, thanks to the internet. Because none of this is likely to slow down for some time, education is critical. As the Retail Payments Risk Forum has stressed before, education is an important element in curbing fraud, and this area is no exception.

Here are some of the more common financial scams targeting the elderly:

  • Charity: The victim receives a request, usually over the telephone or in a public place, for donations for natural disaster relief or other good causes, but the funds are not used for such purposes.
  • Sweepstakes/lottery: The victim receives a letter, email, or telephone call with the news that they have won a lottery or cash sweepstakes—but they have to pay a tax or administrative fee in advance.
  • Home repairs: Someone tells the victim that some aspect of their property needs repair—for example, the driveway, roof shingles, or gutters—and it can be done inexpensively since there is a "crew already in the area." The victim must pay by cash or check in advance, but the crew never appears to do the work.
  • Romance: The fraudster, often posing under a false identity, makes romantic overtures and eventually asks the victim to send money so he or she can travel to meet them.
  • Tax: The victim receives a phone call from the fraudster claiming to be an IRS agent pursuing back taxes and unless the victim sends funds immediately, they will be subject to arrest. A variant of this scam involves the perpetrator posing as a police officer pursuing unpaid traffic tickets or other infractions.
  • Virus: A "technical support" company calls the victim, claiming that a virus has infected the victim’s computer. For the payment of a "modest fee," the company can download software that can kill the virus and protect the computer against future attacks. Often, the software downloaded actually contains some form of malware that may allow the criminal to compromise the banking credentials of the victim.
  • Other advance fee fraud: The fraudster requests money to help a relative in jail or stranded on the roadside. The situations are completely false but might contain some element of truth as the scammer may have found information on social media providing a name or that the named individual is out of town.
  • Identity theft: The criminal communicates with the victim through social media, telephone, or email to obtain bank account or other information allowing them to attempt a wide variety of fraudulent activities including credit applications, unauthorized account transactions, and more.
  • Investments: The victim is convinced to purchase an annuity or some other investment with a supposed lucrative payback.

Sadly, most elder financial abuse is committed by family or other people who are trusted with care of the elderly, which makes the crime more difficult to detect. Such abuses range from the transfer of property or securities to the theft of liquid assets through check writing or ATM withdrawals.

While researching this issue, I was heartened to learn that various organizations are developing or improving software products to help spot potential financial exploitation or to provide training materials. The American Association of Retired Persons recently launched a pilot program for financial institutions called BankSafe. It is a free online training program with educational material presented in different formats, including video games, distributed by the Independent Community Bankers of America and the Credit Union National Association, and, directly, by some financial institutions. In addition, a recent Dow Jones Institutional News article highlighted some fintech products designed to alert trustees of unusual or suspicious activity.

If you know of any valuable programs or organizational efforts to increase awareness of elder financial abuse, please let us know.

Photo of David LottBy David Lott, a payments risk expert in the Retail Payments Risk Forum at the Atlanta Fed

June 10, 2019 in crime , identity theft , theft | Permalink

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