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$36 billion might be a low estimate for this growing fraud

  • One in 18 older "cognitively intact" adults falls prey to financial fraud or abuse in a given year, according to a new study.
  • Three in 10 state securities regulators say they have seen an uptick in elder fraud cases and complaints.

Fraud is becoming a bigger threat to your retirement security — even if you think you're too sharp to fall for a scam.

One 2015 report estimated that older Americans lose $36.5 billion each year to financial scams and abuse. The problem is growing, and researchers say older adults experiencing cognitive decline are just a segment of the victims.

Three in 10 state securities regulators say they have seen an uptick over the past year in cases and complaints involving senior financial fraud and exploitation, according to a new survey from the North American Securities Administrators Association. Only 3 percent reported a decline.

Thieves are following the money, said the association's president, Mike Rothman.

"This population that's retiring is one of the wealthiest, if not the wealthiest generation, in terms of their retirement savings," said Rothman, who is also the Minnesota commissioner of commerce. "Criminals know this as well."

It doesn't help that seniors can also be more vulnerable.

"It's easier to try to exploit a senior citizen with cognitive or other impairments in financial issues, who are alone, than it is to rob a bank," Rothman said. "So they are the targets."

Elder financial fraud cases

Issue
Percentage of cases reported
Third-party abuse/exploitation 27%
Account distributions 26%
Family member, trustee or power of attorney taking advantage 23%
Diminished capacity 12%
Combined diminished capacity and third-party abuse 12%
Fraud 6.30%
Elder exploitation 5.70%
Friend, housekeeper or caretaker taking advantage <1%
Excessive withdrawals <1%
SOURCE: North American Securities Administrators Association

Talking about financial fraud only in context of cognitive decline misses the scope of the problem. Declining cognition is associated with a 33 percent increase in scam susceptibility, but even healthy older adults can fall victim, according to Patricia Boyle, a professor of behavioral sciences at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.

"Many of the victims of financial fraud are not demented or disabled," Boyle told the International Association of Gerontology and Geriatrics conference in July. "Yet for some reason they're still vulnerable — and we're not sure why that is."

In a given year, 1 in 18 "cognitively intact" older adults is victim to financial scams, fraud or abuse, according to a new study in the American Journal of Public Health. The analysis covered 12 studies involving roughly 41,700 individuals.

"It's easier to try to exploit a senior citizen with cognitive or other impairments in financial issues, who are alone, than it is to rob a bank. So they are the targets." -Mike Rothman, North American Securities Administrators Association

Study co-author David Burnes, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto, presented the research at the July conference. He told attendees that even that amount of financial fraud is likely an underestimation — victims are often reluctant to report or share details of the crime.

Defending yourself starts with acknowledging you or a loved one are a target. Be aware of the many different forms elder financial abuse can take, Rothman said, including phone and email scams and bad actors within your social circle. That can help you deflect attempts and spot issues before they have a substantial financial impact.

"It's important for individuals, families, to know the warning signs," he said.

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It can also help to enlist a good support team, including trusted family members and professionals.

Advisors, accountants and other financial professionals can often be among the first to spot potential red flags, like large withdrawals, unexpected financial stress or too-good-to-be-true "investment opportunities," Rothman said. But protections to spot and handle suspected elder financial abuse vary, so ask about those policies when vetting a firm.

(This article was written with the support of a journalism fellowship from New America Media, the Gerontological Society of America and the Retirement Research Foundation.)