As if it weren't enough that some baby boomers are adjusting to not being able to retire when they would like to, many of them are now dealing with con artists targeting them for all kinds of fraudulent schemes.
More than 7.3 million Americans older than 65 have been financially swindled, according to a June survey from the Investor Protection Trust, a nonprofit organization devoted to investor education. The problem has become so pervasive that state securities regulators recently teamed up on a number of fronts to stop thieves in their tracks.
Launched June 15, the Elder Investment Fraud and Financial Exploitation prevention campaign aims to educate medical professionals on how to spot older Americans who may be particularly vulnerable to financial abuse and then refer suspected investment fraud involving them to state securities regulators and local adult protective service agencies. IPT, North American Securities Administrators Association and the National Adult Protective Services Association in cooperation with several medical associations are involved in the campaign.
"Given that frontline medical professionals who deal everyday with older Americans are ideally positioned to spot the impaired mental capacity that can leave seniors vulnerable to financial abuse, our new program seeks to inform doctors, nurses and others about the warning signs of elder investment fraud and financial exploitation," said Don Blandin, president/CEO of IPT.
For their part, credit unions have found a number of ways to help combat fraud against boomers and the elderly. In 2009, the $1 billion Pacific Service Credit Union in Walnut Creek, Calif., was awarded a Congressional Certificate of Special Recognition from Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) for its proactive approaches to preventing abuse. Since 2003, the CU has partnered with the Elder Financial Protection Network. Additionally, MEMBERS Trust Co. has offered presentations that tip trust officers off to suspicious activity.
Of particular concern are seniors with mild cognitive impairment who can perform most daily functions but have trouble with others, such as following their medicine regimen or managing their finances, IPT found. A 2008 Duke University study discovered that about 35% of the 25 million people older than 71 in the U.S. either have mild cognitive impairment or Alzheimer's disease, making them especially vulnerable to financial exploitation, including investment fraud.
The SEC continues to unearth Ponzi schemes designed to lure senior citizens in. In Texas for instance, three recent fraud cases involved older investors who had mild cognitive dementia, said Texas Securities Commissioner Denise Voigt Crawford, who is also president of the North American Securities Administrators Association.
"A few years ago, as we were prosecuting our cases, we found that those involving elder financial fraud were the most heartbreaking," Crawford said. "Here you have a person who has lost their entire life savings. We became worried about this and started discussing who would be best to identify mild cognitive dysfunction."
The regulator looked to a pilot program at Baylor College in Houston that trained medical professionals to identify and report the signs of elder financial abuse to the Texas State Securities Board. The Elder Investment Fraud and Financial Exploitation prevention campaign builds on that with a national scope, Crawford said.
Red flags of abuse include if an elderly person has recently changed in appearance, given someone durable power of attorney, asked to change his or her will or been depressed, said Robert Roush, associate professor of medicine, geriatrics faculty, Baylor College of Medicine. Vulnerability to fraud is also a natural consequence of aging, he added. As a person gets older, there is a change in the cortex of the brain that makes him or her more willing to take uninformed risks.
"Quite frankly, [spotting] investment fraud is something quite new to clinicians," Roush said. "Our job is to prevent this in the first place by raising awareness."
It's especially critical for the medical community, credit unions, financial institutions and regulators to remain vigilant because the wave of boomers who turn 65 in 2029 will not only tax a number of systems, but more will become vulnerable to elder abuse as well, Roush warned.
One encouraging piece is that 80% of adult children said they thought their parents, age 65 or older, would tell them immediately if they were swindled, compared to 16% who thought their parents would be ashamed and hide such a fact, according to the IPT survey. Thirty-five percent of adult children said it is unlikely they would be able to figure out their parents had been swindled unless their parents disclosed that fact. ?In most states, physicians and caregivers are required by law to report any suspected neglect, said Kathleen Quinn, executive director of the National Adult Protective Services Association. The nonprofit has been out front in Washington encouraging Congress to support legislation to protect the elderly.
"Abusers kill many of their victims directly but also indirectly through shame, fear and loss of trust," Quinn said. "We also know abuse drives up healthcare costs. Con artists see seniors as a golden opportunity to enrich themselves."
According to an IPT survey of 2,200 participants conducted in May, 31% said they feel vulnerable to victimization because they are isolated from other people, are depressed or have other mental problems, are dependent on someone else to take care of them or are in bereavement.
Four out of 10 adult children of parents 65 or older said they are very or somewhat worried their parents have already become or will become less able to handle their personal finances over time. Among those over the age of 65, 36% were very or somewhat worried about being less able to handle money over time. ?