Seniors Must Guard Against Financial Elder Abuse

Elder abuse is the neglect, exploitation or “painful or harmful” mistreatment of anyone who is 65 years or older or any disabled dependent adult aged 18 to 64. It may take the form of physical violence, psychological abuse, isolation or neglect by a caregiver. It may also involve financial abuse such as identity theft, or the theft or embezzlement of the senior's property, or scams intended to part seniors from their life savings.

One out of five older Americans has been sold an inappropriate investment, paid excessive fees for a financial product or service, or been a victim of fraud, according to a 2010 study by the Investor Protection Trust. MetLife's research, as reported by Money Magazine, puts the seniors' collective losses at $2.9 billion last year.

In California, the abuse of senior citizens are regularly reported by the Department of Insurance. For example:

Joseph Conlon was a Life Insurance Agent who sold insurance products to seniors. His clients gave him premium funds to purchase life insurance and annuities. However, he took these monies for his own personal use. In order to hide his theft, he gave his victims false documents purporting to be from an insurance company. Two of his victims were 82 and 86 years-old, and the money they gave him made up a major portion of their retirement funds. From 2007 through 2011, Conlon stole a total of $1,009,640.83 of premiums.

Conlon was arrested and eventually pled guilty to one felony count of Financial Elder Abuse, and two felony counts of Grand Theft. He was sentenced to two years in state prison and was ordered to pay restitution to his victims.

Another former life insurance agent, Sharon Harrelson, worked to gain the trust of one senior citizen in her 80′s and talked the elderly into gifting her $60,000. Harrelson promised that she would invest the money in CD accounts for the senior's benefit. However, she deposited the money into her own personal account. Harrelson then falsified bank statements that she then gave to the senior.

Another elderly female victim, who lived at a retirement home, said that Harrelson charged an $8,500 “coaching” fee to help her pre-plan for Medi-Cal long-term care. The woman never received the services. The Fresno District Attorney filed charges and Harrelson was arrested. After her arrest, additional victims came forward, alleging similar elder abuse. In July of this year, Harrelson pled no contest to four felony counts for stealing from an elderly person.

Seniors are often vulnerable to elder abuse due to physical or mental weaknesses, or due to dependence upon people on whom they rely for assistance. The abusers may often be in positions of trust or persons who hold themselves out as ones who purport to help the seniors with their financial or insurance needs, calling themselves “senior specialists” or “retirement advisers” and engaging in deceptive marketing that would appeal to seniors.

Seniors may also be financially abused in the workplace. Some employers take advantage of the reality that a senior employee may find it difficult to change jobs and so will condone wage violations in order to keep their jobs.

Although elder abuse can take many forms and may take time to be discovered, vigilance is key. Seniors and their families should always be wary about “deals” or sales pitches that sound too good to be true. Seniors should have family members accompany them if they are to meet with these “financial advisers.” The rest of us who take care of our seniors should have an open discussion with them about their financial plans. It may not be too much to ask to do the homework for them.

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