Claims of elderly financial abuse or exploitation quadrupled in four years, according to a report from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB).
Earlier this year, the agency analyzed more than 180,000 Suspicious Activity Reports submitted by banks to the federal government from 2013 through 2017 and found that "financial exploitation of older adults by scammers, family members, caregivers, and others is widespread in the United States."
The trend is not surprising to probate attorney Nora Jones with Tiffany & Bosco in Phoenix.
"It's a booming field. We're seeing more and more people being taken advantage of financially," she says.
So much so, Jones' practice primarily focuses on financial crimes against vulnerable and elderly adults.
"Families will contact me because they're concerned (a) grandparent is being taken advantage of," she says.
Hundreds of cases are listed on the Arizona Adult Protective Services Registry. It lists the names of suspects and circumstances of substantiated or uncontested claims of the exploitation and abuse of vulnerable adults. Almost all of them involve people that the victims should have been able to trust, like a caregiver or someone with Power of Attorney.
Cases include forging checks, using credit cards and selling a victim's home and keeping the proceeds.
Jones expects the problem to get worse as the population gets older, and says families should pay extra attention after a major life change like a medical diagnosis or the death of a spouse.
"These are people who are lonely and all of a sudden somebody comes into their life and they're just so excited to have someone to talk to," she says.
Tell-tale signs include, "some kind of change in their behavior. So either a new person is entering their life and they're isolating them or all of a sudden they're not sharing information with you that are used to share," she says. "And you might notice that things are missing around their house."
The thefts often starts small like loans that aren't paid back, or money for helping around the house, but eventually, "it gets bigger and bigger as time goes on and the exploiter gets bolder," Jones says.
So what can do you do to stop it?
Arizona Adult Protective Services investigates elder financial abuse complaints but cases are rarely criminally prosecuted. Jones says families often have to use the courts to undo damage and prevent future problems, especially if the family member is in denial about being exploited.
She says family members can petition the court for conservator-ship, guardianship or ask that a guardian ad litem be assigned, which is a court-appointed attorney that strictly acts on the victim's behalf.
"An individual is permitted to have their beliefs about it ultimately the court side going on and if it's in that person's best interest," Jones says.
Depending on income, some may be eligible for no- or low-cost legal probate help through Probate Lawyers Assistance Project (PLAP). You can reach them at 602-732-2834.
It is co-sponsored by the State Bar of Arizona, the Estate Planning, Probate and Trust Section of the Maricopa County Bar Association, and by the Volunteer Lawyers Program of Community Legal Services.