Elder Exploitation 101

Exploitation of our elders is both common & preventable: Here's how to stop it

By Barney Doyle  |   Jun 15, 2016

For all the crimes you investigate, you won’t find many victims more vulnerable or in need of protection than the elderly. Let’s discuss how to spot signs of elder exploitation and techniques you can use to investigate it.

For this article we’re going to focus on schemes where a person gains control over an elder’s finances and then steals or otherwise misuses the funds.

The Victims

Elderly victims in these types of cases tend to be diminished physically or mentally in a way that leaves them vulnerable to exploitation. Victims with a cognitive impairment (Alzheimer’s or a similar dementia-type illness) might not be aware of the exploitation. Victims with a physical impairment might rely on the suspect for basic care and are thus reluctant to report the exploitation. In some cases the elderly person might die—and not necessarily of natural causes—before the exploitation is discovered.

Whatever the reason, victims of elder exploitation are frequently either unwilling or unable to report it. Because of that, you may have to rely on reports from caregivers, neighbors, healthcare providers, bank tellers, or other concerned acquaintances for these cases.

The Suspect

While the vast majority of these crimes are perpetrated by a family member or trusted friend, they can actually be committed by anybody with access. Unscrupulous caregivers in nursing homes or assisted living facilities are frequently in a position to find multiple victims. Keep an eye out for people that control every aspect of an elder’s life, particularly if they are much younger and have developed a relatively recent friendship.

The Investigation

Start by assembling a complete picture of the elder’s financial situation prior to the suspected exploitation. The further back you can go, the better. Try to get at least six months of records leading up to when the suspect took over the elder’s finances.

From those records, you’re going to identify all of your victim’s sources of income, all of their legitimate expenses, and everything they had saved. If your victim had more income than expenses, you will see an increase every month in their savings. If their expenses were more than their income, you will see a decrease every month in their savings. It won’t necessarily be the exact same amount every month, but it should be close.

Now do the same thing with their current financial picture. Identify any drastic changes—those are areas that need further investigation. Was a source of income diverted to your suspect’s account? Is your suspect paying their own expenses from the elder’s accounts? Did your suspect steal directly from the elder’s savings? Identify the changes and then find the cause.

Income: Most elderly folks will have, at a minimum, Social Security as a source of income. Social Security payments are all made electronically now and appear on a bank statement as a deposit from the U.S. Treasury. If the elder doesn’t have a bank account then the funds are deposited on a prepaid debit card issued by the federal government.

Other sources of income to look for include pensions, retirement savings accounts, investment income, rental property income, tax refunds, and part-time employment.

Expenses: The elderly have all of the same expenses that you do: rent or mortgage, utilities, food, clothing, transportation, entertainment, and medical expenses. The documentation for the expenses might be organized differently, however, if the elder is living in a nursing or assisted living home. They might get a single bill each month that includes multiple categories above. Some of those expenses might be paid directly by Medicare or Medicaid. In any case, the expenses are likely consistent from month to month.

Savings: When identifying an elder’s savings, look beyond just the standard bank savings account. It’s common for elderly victims to have certificates of deposit, savings bonds, individual retirement accounts, money market savings accounts, investment accounts, and safe deposit boxes. Lots of elder folks have also been known to keep cash and valuables at home as well. Identify as much as you can to get an accurate picture of the exploitation.

Other Considerations

Studies have shown that when elder exploitation is committed by a family member that it’s frequently accompanied by abuse or neglect (https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/233613.pdf). It’s therefore important to protect their money as well as the person. Coordinate with adult protective services, look for signs of abuse, and take whatever precautions necessary to make sure that your elder exploitation case doesn’t turn into an elder homicide.

Good luck and Godspeed!