By Michelle Singletary
Sunday, June 20, 2010; G01
When we talk about the aging population in the United States, the conversation is often focused on who will take care of the physical needs of millions of seniors.
But there's a growing threat we also need to make our concern: financial fraud of the elderly.
One of five Americans over the age of 65 -- that's 7.3 million seniors -- has been victimized by a financial swindle, according to a newly released survey by the Investor Protection Trust, a nonprofit education organization.
This survey is particularly troubling when you consider that more than a third of people over 70 have some form of memory impairment, according to a 2008 published study by a national team of university researchers. Cognitive problems make seniors more vulnerable to fraud.
The money stolen from seniors adds up to more than $2.6 billion a year, according to a report released last year by MetLife's Mature Market Institute, the insurer's research organization.
"With the present state of the economy, older Americans are at a greater risk than ever of having their financial security threatened," said Sandra Timmermann, director of the institute.
For each case of elder fraud reported to authorities, an estimated four or more go unreported, according to MetLife. Appallingly, family members and caregivers are the perpetrators in 55 percent of the cases.
In an effort to catch the thieves, the Investor Protection Trust has joined forces with a number of organizations to create the Elder Investment Fraud and Financial Exploitation project. The organizations involved include the North American Securities Administrators Association, the National Adult Protective Services Association, the American Academy of Family Physicians, the National Area Health Education Center Organization and the National Association of Geriatric Education Centers.
The project centers on teaching medical professionals and adult protective services workers to identify the red flags that a senior is being financially abused. The professionals are encouraged to probe and pay attention to any changes in an elderly person's behavior or the presence of a caregiver who appears excessively protective or dominating. Using a grant from the Investor Protection Trust, clinicians and geriatrics faculty from the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston have developed a "Clinician's Pocket Guide" with questions and checklists. To download the short brochure, go to http://www.investorprotection.org.
"Our goal is to improve communication among medical professionals, older Americans, adult children and state securities regulators in order to head off financial swindles before the damage is done," said Don Blandin, president and chief executive of the trust.
To help direct professionals who might not know how to broach this topic, the pocket guide suggests saying: "We find that some older adults worry about money. May I ask you a few questions about this?"
A few of those questions:
-- Who manages your money day to day? How is that going?
-- Have you given power of attorney to another person?
-- Do you have a will? Has anyone asked you to change it?
If the answers raise any concerns, the professionals are then instructed to consult a checklist for further signs that the elderly person may be a victim of financial fraud. The guide lists resources and where to report the suspected abuse.
The elder abuse project was field tested in Texas, where several cases went to trial and resulted in convictions. One involved a lawyer who was sentenced to 99 years in state prison for a $10 million investment scheme that snagged mostly the elderly.
Eliciting the help of the medical community is a smart idea. But there are others who frequently come in contact with seniors who should keep the pocket guide handy.
In one awful case in Maryland, it was an elderly woman's beauticians who suspected that something was wrong and called county authorities, albeit too late to prevent a substantial financial loss to the woman and her since-deceased husband. Nonetheless, the call led to an arrest. The abuser pled guilty to swindling the woman and her husband out of at least $180,000, according to prosecutors. The couple didn't have children, and as the husband's health deteriorated, the 48-year-old perpetrator persuaded the wife to sign a power of attorney giving him full access to her money.
The more seniors who are scammed out of their money, the greater the financial burden to care for them will fall to the government.
"Older people simply don't have the time to recover whatever losses they might incur," Blandin said.
So watch out for the seniors you know, especially if you begin to see signs of mental loss. Report any suspected abuse. This is your business.
Readers can write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.
Comments and questions are welcome, but because of the volume of mail, personal responses are not always possible. Please note that comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer's name, unless a specific request to do otherwise is indicated.