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Independent Living News & Policy from the National Council on Independent Living

What Is It About Financial Abuse and Exploitation?

By Evie Curtis, Senior Vice President, Business Development, County Club Trust Company; Member of the NCIL Violence and Abuse Subcommittee

NCIL logo - National Council on Independent LivingThis isn’t your typical article on financial abuse and exploitation. You will not find tips on preventing this crime or a discussion on the latest schemes. Instead the focus is why – why this crime continues, why it is not prosecuted more, and why it continues to flourish especially with seniors. Do I solve these “whys” in this article? No. After 42 years in business taking care of other people’s money, I continue to search for answers.

In my financial career, I’ve been a banker, trust officer, trustee, executor, agent under health care power of attorney and agent under a financial power of attorney. I understand the tremendous responsibility that comes with assisting someone with his or her finances. My focus has always been on taking care of people and their financial security.

Forty years ago, we didn’t talk about this crime of financial abuse and exploitation. It probably existed but not to the extent we have now. It continues to grow and is too often hidden by its victims. Why won’t people come forward when they are a victim of financial abuse and exploitation? I believe it boils down to one or more of these areas: shame, fear, acceptance, and ignorance. 

Victims will shame themselves into silence and be shamed into silence. They are afraid – afraid of losing their independence or not having someone there to help them. Some victims accept this crime saying, “what else can I do?” Some victims simply do not know they are victims or may justify why it is happening. For all the education we professionals try to do, victims often do not know where or how to report this crime. We tell people, call the police. However, our law enforcement professionals need facts and these facts are often elusive, as our victims may not be able to pull together the needed facts. Bank personnel often are the first to notice that there may be problems. We have seen some very clever schemes.

If you “know” your daughter is using your bank account to pay her bills and your daughter is your power of attorney receiving your bank statement, how can you prove this theft? Ask your thieving daughter to let you see the bank statement? Our victim may need that daughter to help her get to the grocery store and doctor’s appointments. Acceptance becomes the path of least resistance.

Sally and her possessions were “deposited” at our bank. After years of isolating and exploiting Sally, the caregiver found out she had been removed as Sally’s financial agent. The caregiver removed Sally from what used to be her home (now titled in the caregiver’s name). Sally had the courage to take action but was now in fear of her life. Where would she live and how would she gain back access to her financial assets? Sally died before the caregiver was even questioned by authorities.

Serving as someone’s fiduciary (either as a trustee or agent under a power of attorney) is a tremendous responsibility. You have power over someone else’s assets. I have seen this power translate into “justification” for paying a few bills, maybe taking a little trip, or buying something you feel you deserve with assets that are not yours. Nancy’s long time neighbor and now her agent under a power of attorney “borrowed” almost all her assets. When questioned by the police, he said Nancy willingly agreed but was too old to remember. The neighbor now has time to reflect as he makes full restitution.

No crime can be stopped unless it is reported. That means, someone has to care enough to let the authorities know a crime has been or may have been committed. When a crime is reported, those professionals have to have the time and resources to investigate and prosecute. We have to continue to educate the public on these crimes so victims know they have a voice and that their voice will be heard. For those foolish enough to think they are getting away with this crime, remember financial transactions are all recorded transactions.

Financial abuse and exploitation is a crime. Unfortunately, our lack of knowledge about it makes it an easy crime to commit. Offer to help someone and they agree, then you have easy access to all their financial records. It is a crime of opportunity. It is best to not provide the opportunity. We read these horror stories on a regular basis. And yet, it continues. What ideas do you have to stop financial abuse and exploitation? Share those ideas with friends, neighbors, professionals, and your community. It might just be the answer we need.

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