Financial exploitation in this context is generally defined as illegal or improper use of an older individual’s financial resources, which may include money, property, or other assets. While scams and identity theft in which strangers target older individuals do occur, in most cases of financial exploitation, the perpetrator is someone known to the victim, such as a family member, caregiver, or friend. In some cases, financial resources are stolen from older individuals without their knowledge. In other cases, threats, intimidation, and violence are used as methods to steal resources. In some instances, undue influence is used for financial exploitation. In domestic violence, an abuser uses financial exploitation as a tactic to gain and maintain power and control and deny a victim resources needed for health and well-being or to leave and start anew. If an older victim has assets, the abuser may engage in acts of economic sabotage to reduce his or her independence and may bankrupt the victim if he or she rejects the abusive relationship. Finally, guardianships, conservatorships, or powers of attorney for an older individual may be misused to benefit the exploiter.
Indicators of financial exploitation can include but are not limited to the following:
- The older individual is kept unaware of assets, bank accounts, income, and net worth.
- Possessions, documents, or credit cards are missing.
- The exploiter isolates the older individual from friends, family, activities, and information.
- Bills are unpaid.
- The caregiver refuses to spend the older individual’s money on that individual.
- The older individual has given many expensive gifts to the caregiver.
- Checks are made out to cash, often in whole dollar amounts.
- The caregiver convinces an older individual to sign a blank check for one purpose and then misuses the check or steals the money.
Some exploiters use undue influence to steal from an older adult. Undue influence is the substitution of one person’s will for the true desires of another. Undue influence occurs when one person uses his or her role and power to deceptively exploit the trust, dependency, and fear of another. The power is used to gain psychological control over the decision making of a weaker person. Unlike common persuasion and sales techniques, fraud, duress, threats, and other deceits are often components of undue influence. Victims may or may not have capacity.
Anyone can be a victim of undue influence, and anyone can experience circumstances that may increase his or her susceptibility. Individuals with medical conditions, cognitive challenges, or mental health issues, or who are grieving, are isolated, or lack financial expertise, may be particularly vulnerable. Exploiters can also be anyone, including family members, caregivers, fiduciaries, opportunists, and career criminals. Undue influence is seldom itself a crime, but it is a method to commit financial exploitation.
In some cases, an older victim will have a guardian or attorney in fact under a power of attorney. The older individual will have voluntarily given or legally relinquished some or all decision-making power due to cognitive or physical needs to a surrogate decision maker. In some cases, the surrogate exploits the older individual by stealing from him or her, by misusing the victim’s resources, and by not providing for the older person. While powers of attorney and guardianship documents bestow considerable legal authority, they are not legal licenses to steal.
The impact of financial exploitation on older victims can be significant. Its impact can be as significant as that of physical abuse. Often older victims lose the assets they have worked a lifetime to accumulate. They may be forced to leave their homes and live in poverty. Due to their age, many older victims may not be able to join the work force and may never financially recover. Some older victims experience a significant decline in their health or have committed suicide after being financially exploited.
Financial abuse usually occurs along with other forms of elder abuse. Physical abuse may be used to force the older victim to hand over assets. Neglect may be used to weaken an older victim to the point that he or she cannot resist what the abuser demands or as a threat to gain compliance with the perpetrator’s demands. Psychological and emotional abuse may be used to convince older victims that they cannot live independently without the abuser and to discourage them from reporting.
Financial exploitation is often a crime. Victims can report their exploitation to law enforcement. If a case is criminally prosecuted, in addition to incarceration, a court can order victim restitution. Victim compensation funds may be able to provide emergency financial assistance as well.
Victims can also work with adult protective services and the aging network to learn about housing and potential benefit programs to help them if they are unable to recover the lost assets. If the financial exploitation is part of a pattern of power and control, a domestic violence program may be able to assist civil attorneys who can file lawsuits and protective orders to recover assets, separate the parties, demand accountings of expenses, and seek damages. In some cases, they can get orders setting aside property transfers. Professionals who misuse client assets also can be subjected to professional discipline.
- Brandl, B., Heisler, C., & Stiegel, L. (2006). The parallels between undue influence, domestic violence, stalking and sexual assault. Journal of Elder Abuse and Neglect, 17, 37–54.
- Hafemeister, T. (2003). Financial abuse of the elderly in domestic settings. In R. Bonnie & R. Wallace (Eds.), Elder mistreatment: Abuse, neglect, and exploitation in an aging America (pp. 382–445). Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
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