By Fran Tarkenton and Rick Gossett
The truth is, elder financial abuse is an epidemic sweeping the country—and it makes us mad as hell, which is why we wrote a guide to avoiding it called Safe & Secure. Unless you are constantly on the lookout, you could be the next victim.
The first step in stopping financial elder abuse is knowing the risks and recognizing that there are many different ways you can be targeted.
Many people assume senior citizens are targeted because they suffer from mental or physical decline.
The National Center on Elder Abuse, for instance, defines elder financial abuse as “the illegal taking, misuse, or concealment of funds, property, or assets of a vulnerable elder” at risk for harm by another due to changes in “physical functioning, mental functioning, or both.”1
But the reality is, even if you are a physically and mentally healthy eighty-year-old, you are still a target for elder financial abuse. You are a target because of your age and your financial status, and because you are sitting on a retirement nest egg that someone wants to steal. Seniors are the most likely demographic to have savings, own their homes, and enjoy good to excellent credit scores, all of which make them targets—whether for financial abuse or identity theft. Criminals target the elderly because that’s where the money is. A recent article in Barron’s magazine pegged the wealth of those aged sixty-five and older at $18 trillion dollars! No wonder seniors are targets. In that same article, the author warned that the longer you live, the more likely you are to be relatively affluent; and by the age of eighty-five, seniors have nearly a 50% chance of suffering some degree of cognitive impairment.2 People with bad intentions therefore see seniors as easy marks.
Other factors play into this as well. Social isolation is a big one; some senior citizens become so physically and emotionally dependent on their caregivers that they become their financial prisoners.
It’s also true that many of us seniors slowly lose our ability to handle household finances or lose our spouse who handled them. David Laibson, a professor at Harvard University, argues that we reach our peak financial capability at fifty-three. It’s all downhill from there! In desperation, too many seniors who don’t want to burden family members seek financial help not from those best prepared to give it, but from scammers.
In the US Securities and Exchange Commission’s report titled “Elder Financial Exploitation,” released in June of 2018, the following factors are listed as ways of increasing the risk of elder financial exploitation:
- Physical and cognitive health issues
- A decline in financial capacity
- As we age, our ability to judge trustworthiness and financial riskiness declines
- Increasing social isolation
- The number of the vulnerable elderly is growing
- The elderly have money
- The nature of retirement assets has changed over the years—more elderly rely on a retirement nest egg (an IRA or 401(k) account) that can be targeted by criminals and less on pension payments that are more difficult to exploit3
Just as elderly persons become less and less able to protect themselves, so they become the target of financial exploitation. Sadly, elder financial abuse crimes often go unreported. Elders fear that if they report a family member, they may be left abandoned and uncared for. A 2011 study titled “Under the Radar: New York State Elder Abuse Prevalence” concluded that only 2% of elder financial abuse incidents were reported.4
Our new book, Safe & Secure: 10 Essential Steps for Seniors to Protect Against Financial Abuse, you will help you discover why you might be a target for financial abuse.
You are a target because every elderly person is a target. It doesn’t matter where you live, how much money you have in the bank, or whether you are spry and happy or incapacitated and depressed. The abusers see every elderly person as someone they can take advantage of—they only have to vary their approach.
The sad fact is that even the characteristics that might make you a wonderful grandparent can make you an easy target. It is not just the isolated, naïve, or impaired elderly who are vulnerable; it is the open, friendly, and gregarious who might get a fraudulent midnight phone call saying, “Grandma, I’m in trouble and need bail money—and please don’t tell mom and dad.” It happens all the time.
Whatever your personality, whatever your financial, mental, emotional, or physical situation, scammers have you targeted. Action Step #1 is recognizing that you are a target for every aspect of financial elder abuse, from identity theft to fraudulent repairs, from sweepstakes scams to fake “Grandma, I’m in trouble” calls, from IRS impersonation scams to all the rest.
But as we’ll see, you don’t have to be a victim! Simple awareness of your vulnerability is the first step to avoiding that.
Fran Tarkenton is a NFL Hall of Fame quarterback turned successful businessman and entrepreneur. One of his businesses, Tarkenton Financial LLC, focuses on retirement income strategies. Fran his partner CPA Rick Gossett are the authors of “Safe & Seucre: 10 Essential Steps for Seniors to Protect Against Financial Abuse” (releases January 22nd.)