December 10, 2012

Watch for warning signs of financial abuse of elderly


---- — Some of the most heartrending crimes are when a relative or caregiver steals from a trusting family member or patient. This is generally referred to as financial exploitation of the elderly, but don’t let that label put you off, as the not-so-elderly can be victimized, as well. 

It is about trust and deception. There are several kinds of financial exploitation: Some is by strangers, such as telemarketers. But, the most painful offenses are by loved ones.

I’ve seen the teen who wrote checks to herself while caring for her grandmother; the housekeeper/companion of the older gentleman who helped herself to all of his money, leaving his bills — including insurance and mortgage — unpaid; the roofing contractor who befriended an elderly woman and obtained gifts of large sums of money from her.

As we age and need help, sometimes the person providing care takes advantage of our vulnerability by stealing. This can happen without the victim’s knowledge, as it did in the cases with the granddaughter and trusting man. There are other methods, like using an ATM card without authority, forging checks or credit cards, or outright taking money.


Or it may be more open, as it was with the roofer who befriended the lonely woman. It appeared that she loved and trusted him and knowingly gave him thousands of dollars. Other times, the friend, relative or caregiver uses threats or emotional abuse to persuade the dependent person to add his or her name to a joint bank account, sign a power of attorney or transfer ownership of property.

By playing on their fear of being alone or leading them to believe that no one else cares, the exploiter gains control. The more isolated the person feels, the more effectively these techniques work. The exploiter may prevent others from access to the victim by, for example, always answering the phone, telling the caller that the person is not available, and telling the victim that no one ever calls her. 

It can take time to discover the truth.


The senior may realize she is being taken advantage of but chooses to put up with it to have her granddaughter there. Other times, they have no idea that the person they love is stealing from them and will not believe it, even when someone else discovers it.

There are many consequences to these thefts. As the money and assets are stolen, bills may go unpaid, causing problems with rent or mortgage, heat, electricity, telephone, insurance and the like. It may prevent eligibility for Medicaid when long-term care is needed, because Medicaid has a five-year “look back” requirement. 

This means that assets that were given away or stolen within five years of applying for Medicaid will be counted as still owned by the patient, resulting in a person who can’t pay for care but is also disqualified from Medicaid.


There are warning signs to look for in the home, such as collection notices for unpaid bills, turned-off utilities, lack of food, missing valuables, no bank statements or missing checks. The bank teller may notice changes in banking behavior, like more frequent ATM transactions, large withdrawals, signatures on checks or withdrawal forms that look suspicious.

Other relatives or friends may notice changes in the senior’s behavior: new worry or confusion about finances or fears of eviction or being institutionalized unless money is given to a specific person. 

They may also notice that there is a new friend or relative who is spending a lot of time with the older adult and seems very interested in that person’s finances or is controlling them. Pay attention to whether the older person seems nervous or afraid around the caregiver or is becoming increasingly isolated and dependent upon a single relative, friend or caregiver.

These “red flags” warn you to look more closely. Financial exploitation not only robs people of their money but also their independence, dignity and security. If you are worried but do not know how best to handle it, you can contact your county Adult Protective Services. They are trained to investigate these kinds of issues and have the legal power to obtain bank records, as well as accountings from someone with a power of attorney.

Penny Clute has been an attorney since 1973. She was the Clinton County district attorney from 1989 through 2001, then Plattsburgh City Court judge until she retired in January 2012.



▶ Adult Protective Services: Clinton County, 565-3363; Essex County, 873-3441; and Franklin County, 481-1856.

▶ National Center for Prevention of Elder Abuse:

▶ Video by Buncombe County, N.C., Adult Protective Services: