Just before the release of a survey about elder financial abuse, an arbitration panel awarded $34 million in damages, including hearing costs, to the estate of Roy M. Speer, a co-founder of the Home Shopping Network.

The award is further proof that rich people are just as vulnerable to financial exploitation as anyone else. In fact, their immense wealth can make them even more susceptible.

The case involved the investment firm Morgan Stanley Smith Barney and two stockbrokers. Speer died in 2012. His wife, Lynnda, brought a claim against the company, arguing that her husband’s estate and his foundation funds had been mismanaged.

The arbitration panel agreed, and found that Morgan Stanley and the brokers were guilty of “unauthorized trading, churning, breach of fiduciary duty/constructive fraud, negligence, negligent supervision . . . and unjust enrichment.”

In a statement issued by her attorneys, Lynnda Speer said the financial services company and the stockbrokers “breached their fiduciary duties to Roy and his foundation and exploited him during a time of his continuing mental and physical decline.”

Morgan Stanley has denied any wrongdoing and asserted through a spokesperson that it “is disappointed by the result and does not believe the award is justified. [It] is inconsistent with substantial evidence showing that the accounts were profitable for the client and managed in accordance with his wishes.”

But let’s look beyond this case to what other seniors are experiencing. A new survey of more than 3,500 Americans conducted for the nonprofit Investor Protection Trust (IPT) found some troubling signs of elder financial abuse and exploitation.

Seventeen percent of Americans 65 or older have “been taken advantage of financially in terms of an inappropriate investment, unreasonably high fees for financial services, or outright fraud,” the survey concluded.

Although that number is down from the 20 percent reported in the group’s 2010 report, it’s still disturbing. When the children of seniors were asked whether their parents had been swindled, 20 percent said they had, compared with 15 percent six years ago.

So what’s the point of this report and others like it that show seniors are persistently becoming vulnerable to financial fraud?

They’re a call to action.

We’ve all got to become sentinels, says Irving Faught, securities administrator for the Oklahoma Securities Commission.

“Be watchful of your parents, and then people need to be watching you,” he said in an interview.

Considering that a lot of financial fraud is committed by relatives or someone close to a senior, doctors should be observing the people accompanying seniors to appointments, said Robert Roush, director of the Texas Consortium Geriatric Education Center at the Baylor College of Medicine.

“Ask seniors if anybody has asked them to change their will or sign a durable power of attorney,” Faught said.

Roush said certain medical personnel are required to report signs of abuse, including indications of financial fraud. Still, some might be reluctant to make a call, concerned that they are wrong about a situation.

Almost half of the adult children of parents 65 or older said they were “very” or “somewhat” worried that their parents “have already become or will become less able to handle their personal finances over time,” the IPT’s report said.

To help stem the losses resulting from elder financial abuse, medical personnel, legal professionals, pharmacists, accountants, social workers, bank employees and just about anyone who regularly comes in contact with a senior have to become investigators.

The IPT report found that 43 percent of seniors had exhibited one or more of the following warning signs:

●They’ve gotten phone calls or mail from people asking for money or telling them they’ve won a lottery or other contest. Or they may talk about some new investment scheme.

●They start talking about how nervous they are about making a financial decision.

●They may seem confused about financial decisions being made for them by someone else.

●They mention loans for gifts that they can’t afford.

●They say that money is disappearing from their bank accounts.

“Everyone has something to lose if we aren’t watching out for everybody,” said Don Blandin, president and chief executive of IPT, which has an elder fraud and exploitation prevention program that is educating professionals to look for signs that a senior may be at risk.

If you suspect something, contact adult protective services or the state securities office or IPT. Blandin says to call his group at 202-775-2112 or email him at blandin@
investorprotection.org.

“Financial fraud can happen to a janitor or the founder of a Fortune 500 company,” Roush said.

Don’t be afraid to be wrong when it comes to elder financial abuse. The call you don’t make could cost someone his or her life savings.

Write Singletary at The Washington Post, 1301 K St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or michelle.singletary@washpost.com. To read more, go to wapo.st/michelle-singletary.