Financial Abuse of Elderly Underreported, Study by Professor Shows

December 15, 2011

Financial exploitation of the elderly is underreported, underinvestigated and underprosecuted — and victims may be particularly vulnerable during the holidays, according to a leading expert on elder abuse at the University of Virginia School of Law.

Thomas L. Hafemeister
Thomas L. Hafemeister

"Because financial exploitation typically involves family members and is often driven by the financial need of the individual exploiting the victim, I would expect financial exploitation of elderly persons to increase significantly during the holiday season," said Thomas L. Hafemeister, an associate professor at the Law School and an associate professor of medical education in the School of Medicine's Department of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Sciences.

Hafemeister and Shelly Jackson, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Sciences, are in the process of publishing a dozen related articles about their research on elder abuse.

They conducted a study in Virginia that examined the financial exploitation of elderly people living in a domestic setting compared to other forms of elder maltreatment, such as physical abuse, neglect, and a combination of financial exploitation and physical abuse or neglect.

They found that adult protective services caseworkers tend to view financial exploitation cases as more difficult to investigate than cases of physical abuse or neglect. And they found that caseworkers believe that police and prosecutors are less likely to pursue incidents of financial exploitation.

Elderly people who were victims of financial exploitation lost a sizable amount of money and assets, with average losses of $87,967, the researchers found.

While it is widely believed that primarily con artists target the elderly's finances, in most cases financial exploitation was actually committed by someone close to the victim, often a family member.

"There's a mistaken assumption that the people who exploit elderly individuals are strangers, are predators; that there is this cadre of individuals out there in the community, roaming around and looking for victims," Hafemeister said. "Well, that's not the way this typically works. Sure, there are some individuals who will move from victim to victim, but that's relatively infrequent. Generally, it's someone very well known to the individual."

Financial exploitation of the elderly can be devastating, Hafemeister said, partly because the lost funds are often essential in helping the senior citizen to maintain independence, and partly because the perpetrators are so often someone the victim trusted and relied upon.

The prevalence of elder abuse — including financial exploitation — is uncertain, according to the U.S. Administration on Aging's National Center on Elder Abuse. According to the best available estimates, roughly 700,000 to 3.5 million older Americans are abused, neglected or exploited each year, the agency reports. And research suggests that as few as one in six cases of elder abuse come to the attention of authorities.

As a result of financial exploitation and abuse, senior citizens across the U.S. lose a minimum of $2.6 billion per year, according to a Metlife Mature Market Institute report in 2009.

By all accounts, the problem is expected to grow worse in the years ahead as the baby boom generation reaches age 65. By 2030, older Americans are projected to make up 20 percent of the nation's population, or roughly double what it was in 2007, according to the U.S. Administration on Aging.

To minimize the chances of becoming a victim of financial exploitation, Hafemeister advises senior citizens to avoid becoming too dependent on a single person, no matter how much they trust that person.

It also helps, Hafemeister said, to have multiple people staying in contact with the elderly person and watching out for warning signs, such as worrisome changes in the senior citizen's behavior, an overreliance on a single person, or a pushing away of family members and others with whom the senior citizen had previously been close.

"Having multiple sets of eyes involved can provide oversight, as well as some checks and balances, to discourage exploitation, and if it occurs, to catch it at a relatively early stage," he said. "Similarly, friends and relatives would be well advised to stay as actively involved in an elderly person's life as possible so that warning signals of financial exploitation can be readily detected and remedial steps taken to minimize losses."

Hafemeister said he is skeptical that new laws specifically targeting financial abuse of the elderly will have a significant impact on the problem. Rather, he said, better training of caseworkers, police and prosecutors might be more effective.

In larger cities, he noted, prosecutors have established special units devoted to investigating and pursuing allegations of elder abuse, particularly financial exploitation.

"Either those prosecutors have special training to aid them in examining financial transactions involving elderly persons or they have available to them experts in this field. And that seems to make a big difference," he said. "For smaller communities, however, it can be difficult to find the resources to set up this sort of special unit. Such communities may instead turn to regional training programs and a pooling of resources."

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

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