April is National Financial Literacy Month. It highlights the need to teach Americans to establish and maintain healthy financial habits, as well as understand potential scams and other dangers to their resources.
Older adults are the fastest growing segment of our society and they are also an important part of our country’s economy. America’s growing older adult population is uniquely vulnerable to a broad range of exploitation and abuse. Financial crimes in particular are targeted at older adults with alarming frequency, and are all too often successful.
My CreditUnion.gov advises that older adults especially should be aware of fraud schemes for the following reasons:
- Older citizens are most likely to have a “nest egg,” to own their home, and/or to have excellent credit—all of which make them attractive to con artists.
- People who grew up in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s were generally raised to be polite and trusting. Con artists exploit these traits, knowing that it is difficult or impossible for these individuals to say “no” or just hang up the telephone.
- Older adults are less likely to report a fraud because they don’t know who to report it to, are too ashamed at having been scammed, or don’t know they have been scammed. Elderly victims may not report crimes, for example, because they are concerned that relatives may think the victims no longer have the mental capacity to take care of their own financial affairs.
- When an elderly victim does report the crime, they often make poor witnesses. Con artists know the effects of age on memory, and they are counting on elderly victims not being able to supply enough detailed information to investigators. In addition, the victims’ realization that they have been swindled may take weeks—or more likely, months—after contact with the fraudster. This extended time frame makes it even more difficult to remember details from the events.
- Older citizens are more interested in and susceptible to products promising increased cognitive function, virility, physical conditioning, anti-cancer properties, and so on. In a country where new cures and vaccinations for old diseases have given every American hope for a long and fruitful life, it is not so unbelievable that the con artists’ products can do what they claim.
Financial exploitation has been called “the crime of the 21st century” with one study suggesting that older Americans lost at least $2.9 billion to financial exploitation in 2010 by a broad spectrum of perpetrators, including persons they know and trust, as well as strangers. Cognitive impairment diminishes the ability of some older adults to make financial decisions and to detect frauds and scams. This epidemic is under the radar.
The cases tend to be very complex and can be difficult to investigate and prosecute. Elders who lose their life savings usually have little or no opportunity to regain what they have lost. Elder financial exploitation can result in the loss of the ability to live independently. It can also result in a decline in health, broken trust, and fractured families. Awareness is the first step. Planning ahead for financial wellbeing and the possibility of diminished financial capacity is critical. Reporting and early intervention are vital to preventing loss and recovering loss when possible.
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