Editorial Policy

What to Do If You Suspect Elder Financial Abuse

Erica Sandberg

December 27, 2011

QDear Erica,
My stepsister has been “caring” for our elderly parents for the last few years since she’s the only one of us who lives in the same town. Recently, my brother visited them and noticed an opened credit card bill on their kitchen table. The charges were outrageous. When he confronted our stepsister, she admitted using our parents’ credit cards for her personal expenses, even though she was only supposed to use them for medications and food. She promised to pay our parents back when she had the money, but we don’t trust her. Is there anything we can do? We haven’t told our parents yet. My dad’s got dementia and is in a home and my stepmom babies her daughter and lets her get away with everything. — Colleen

ADear Colleen,
What we have here is a clear case of fraud. Your stepsister committed a serious crime when she used your parents’ credit cards to buy things for herself without their knowledge and permission.

Sadly, as despicable as this may sound, what she did is really quite common. According to a 2011 MetLife Study of Elder Financial Abuse, elder abuse victims lose an estimated $2.9 billion dollars annually. While strangers commit just over half of these crimes, 34 percent of them are committed by family members, friends and neighbors. Nice, huh?

There are many reasons why these crimes are so prevalent, from addiction issues to straight-up greed. A typical scenario, however, is when someone is brought into the home of an elderly or disabled person who needs round-the-clock care. The temptation to take a little here and there can be too great.

I’m not excusing the thief (it’s reprehensible!), but many such criminals feel justified because it can be such a hard and underpaid job. More, if the victims are not seriously financially impacted by the extra charges, skimming off the top can seem, well, not so bad. If you toss your moral compass over a bridge, that is. Ask Erica

So what should you do now? You have a number of options:

1. Try to solve the problem internally.
Gather the family and inform the evil stepsister that she must repay every ill-gotten penny. Because she’s not trustworthy, claim some collateral so you feel more secure. Maybe she has a car, jewelry, furniture or an appliance that you can hold onto while she’s making financial amends.

2. Contact the Administration on Aging.
The Administration on Aging is a federal agency that’s responsible for advocating the concerns of older people and their caregivers. Contact them to get a social worker to come to you and help your family find a resolution.

3. File a police report.
Again, what this relative did was criminal, so you may just want to jump to the law. Call the police and explain what happened. They’ll take the next steps and she could be brought to formal justice.

4. Employ a money and credit monitoring service.
If you still need someone to help with your parents’ routine and who will also assume financial tasks (like paying bills or going grocery shopping), consider hiring a member of the American Association of Daily Money Managers. That person will monitor bank account and credit activity. If they detect problems, they’ll notify you immediately.

5. Have your parents close their credit accounts.
If mom and dad don’t need them for making purchases or keeping up their credit rating, having open lines of credit can be more liability than asset.

6. Set up a financial power of attorney.
Because your father has dementia, perhaps your stepmother is still capable of arranging for this legal document. It would allow her to choose someone you both trust who can properly oversee their financial affairs.

Finally, I commend you for taking this matter seriously. Try to remain involved in your parents’ financial affairs by holding regular money meetings with your parents. The more you have out in the open, the less chance someone can swoop in and start taking what isn’t theirs.