What to Look For / Indicators

The indicators and warning signs of elder financial abuse are specific to the type of thefts and method of exploitation. We have broken the list into three sections: General, Stranger, and Trusted Family/friend/Caretaker.

This list includes warning signs we have seen at the Stop Senior Thefts Project, as well as indicators from other sources as listed in the bottom of the page.

A single occurrence of one of the signs below doesn’t necessarily indicate exploitation. However, if a pattern or cluster of indicators is identified, someone with experience in elder abuse should take a very serious look at the totality of the circumstances to ensure the senior is safe and their finances are secure.

General Warning Signs:

  • Money missing from accounts
  • Sudden changes in bank account or banking practice, including an unexplained withdrawal of large sums of money by a person accompanying the elder
  • The elder is concerned or confused about “missing money
  • The senior is reluctant to discuss finances
  • There are suspicious signatures on the elder’s checks, or the elder signs checks and another party fills in the payee and amount sections
  • Elder is suddenly using his or her credit cards more frequently (or if he or she is taking out cash advances)
  • Financial activity that is inconsistent with the senior’s financial history and/or beyond their means (i.e. increased or unexplained credit card activity, withdrawals in spite of penalties, new authorized signers on accounts)
  • Elder’s possessions are inconsistent with the size of their estate
  • Unpaid bills or collection letters. If a financially responsible person appears to not be paying bills or isn’t buying food or other necessities, it’s time to investigate. Mismanaging money can be signs of abuse, illness, or dementia
  • Lack of food in residence – another sign of abuse, illness, or cognitive problem
  • Sudden changes in an elder’s mood or demeanor. Unusual and sudden sadness, nervousness, or anxiety are all potential signs of abuse. Other things to look for include changes in spending patterns and socializing habits. Ask yourself if the elder is turning down opportunities to go out with family or friends, or if he or she seems hesitant to make normal purchases, such as clothing, food, or holiday gifts. This behavior indicates that the elder might be in financial distress
  • Senior is no longer refilling prescriptions for medicine; or has reduced the intake of the medicine as compared to the prescription schedule

Warning Signs Specific to Abuse by a Stranger:

  • Senior is receiving an excessive amount of junk mail with special offers, notices of Lottery Winnings, or stay at home employment
  • Emails or snail mail from unknown charities thanking the senior for a recent donation, and/or requests for money
  • Evidence such as receipts in the senior’s home for money grams, Western Union transactions, gift cards, or purchases for expedited delivery for mail or packages
  • Frequent visits to stores where money can be wired by Western Union
  • Any comment by the senior regarding sending money to someone because the senior has won a prize; but, has to pay shipping
  • Senior is receiving mail from medical companies offering special rates for prescription medications
  • Higher than normal volume of phones calls on the senior’s primary phone number. If a cell phone, check call history and compare from month to month
  • The senior is more difficult to contact via phone – when calling, a busy signal received, or go immediately go to voice mail if a cell phone
  • A senior comments about talking to law enforcement agencies such as the FBI
  • Bounced checks or bills going unpaid when there should be enough money in the bank to cover them
  • Sudden unusual or unnecessary purchases, for example golf clubs and the individual doesn’t/can’t play golf
  • Large, unnecessary home repairs
  • Loans or gifts given that are more than they can afford; they inexplicably run out of money at the end of the month
  • People are mailing or emailing and asking for money
  • A large amount of money has been taken out of the bank or other cash account
  • Numerous withdrawals of smaller amounts, for example $100 at a time, several times a week
  • If a senior is using Social Networking – such as Facebook; new “friends” that have been added; but are not known to the family. Especially be aware of new “friends” that have a small number of people on their contact list. These individuals may be actors portraying someone to obtain information from the senior about the family, and win the trust of the senior through social hacking

A Broken Trust: Warning Signs Specific to Abuse by a Trusted Family Member/ Friend / Caretaker:

  • Unpaid bills, eviction notices, or notices to discontinue utilities
  • Change in appearance, poor hygiene
  • A relative or caregiver isolates the elder, makes excuses when friends or family call or visit, and does not give the elder messages
  • If the elder lives with a caretaker and you start seeing a lot of new items around the house, and they aren’t things that the elder would normally use, ask where they came from. They may belong to the caretaker, but you want to make sure that the elder isn’t paying for them.
  • Withdrawals from bank accounts or transfers between accounts that the older person cannot explain
  • Bank statements, Checking account, and credit card statements are sent to a relative or caregiver and are not accessible to the elder
  • A trusted individual becomes secretive about the senior’s finances
  • A new person suddenly accompanying a senior to the bank, and “coaches” the senior or refuses to allow the senior to speak for themselves
  • A senior commenting that someone is taking them to the bank on a routine basis
  • A recent acquaintance expresses an interest in finances, promises to provide care, or ingratiates him or herself with the elder
  • The senior has a new “best friend”
  • Legal documents, such as powers of attorney, which the older person didn’t understand at the time he or she signed them
  • The senior has been isolated from others by a trusted person
  • Unusual activity in the older person’s bank accounts including large, unexplained withdrawals, frequent transfers between accounts, or ATM withdrawals
  • The care of the elder is not commensurate with the size of his/her estate
  • An elderly person appears nervous or afraid of the person accompanying him or her in public
  • Sudden appearance of previously uninvolved relatives claiming their rights to an elder’s affairs and possessions
  • Belongings or property are missing
  • Someone trusted has facilitated a sudden change in estate planning documents, Power of Attorney, Suspicious signatures on checks or other documents
  • Absence of documentation about financial arrangements
  • The elder is unaware of or does not understand financial arrangements that have been made for him or her trusteeship/Guardianship, or signatory on a bank or brokerage account
  • Unexplained sudden transfer of assets to a family member or someone outside the family
  • A relative or caregiver has no visible means of support and is overly interested in the elder’s financial affairs
  • Caregiver or beneficiary refuses to use the senior’s funds for necessary medical care and treatment
  • A relative or caregiver gives implausible explanations about finances, and the elder is unaware of or unable to explain the arrangements made
  • There is an unusual amount of banking activity, particularly just after joint accounts are set up or someone new starts helping with the elder’s finances

Most importantly, if you suspect a senior citizen has been, or is being physically abused, you should call local law enforcement and/or adult protective services. If you reasonably believe the person is in imminent danger physically; you must immediately contact Emergency Services/Law Enforcement by dialing 911.

If the allegation of abuse is true, the elder’s safety is paramount; and immediate action may be necessary to safeguard the senior citizen. There is also a high probability that a crime has been committed, and evidence must be identified and secured by the appropriate authorities.

If the allegation is not true, the senior’s statement may represent a sign of cognitive impairment; and medical and psychological intervention is necessary.

For more information on the services we provide, please visit our How We Help page.

If you have questions about indicators, you need assistance, would like to schedule an educational seminar, or would like to help our project, please contact us.

Additional resources for elder financial fraud can be found here.

Content Sources:

“How to Identify Elder Financial Abuse – Types, Signs & Prevention”, Lainie Petersen

“Legal Issues Related to Elder Abuse A Pocket Guide for Law Enforcement” by Lori A. Stiegel, JD American Bar Association Commission on Law and Aging 2014

“Financial Abuse Specialist Team (F.A.S.T.)”, Sedgwick County District Attorney’s Office

“Protect Your Pocketbook: Tips to Avoid Financial Exploitation”, ElderCare Locator