Despite the headlines about con artists like Bernie Madoff, your chance of getting swindled out of your life savings is relatively slim. But the possibility grows as you get older.
One senior in five has been taken in some form of financial con, according to a survey released last week.
And half the seniors surveyed reported experiencing some degree of attempted economic exploitation, such as being pressured to buy foreign lottery tickets or being pitched with incomprehensible investments. Some said they believed that someone had gained access to their bank accounts and had siphoned away their money.
"Con artists see seniors as a golden opportunity," said Kathleen Quinn, executive director of the National Adult Protective Services Assn., a nonprofit agency charged with improving services to prevent abuse, neglect and exploitation of elderly and disabled adults.
Why? Like career bank robber Willie Sutton, con artists go where the money is, and seniors often have built up small fortunes from a lifetime of thrift.
But, more important, a surprising number of seniors suffer from ailments that make them prime targets for con artists and parasitic family members, according to Dr. Robert E. Roush, associate professor of medicine at Baylor College of Medicine.
In response, a rare coalition of financial and medical professionals joined together last week to form the Elder Investment Fraud and Financial Exploitation project.
Their goal is to stem what they believe is a rising tide of economic exploitation of the elderly.
The new effort is an outgrowth of a pilot project in Texas that seeks to team medical professionals with state securities regulators and social services agencies. The goal is to train social workers and doctors to detect and head off financial fraud before it leaves seniors destitute.
Texas Securities Commissioner Denise Voigt Crawford said that pilot project started when securities regulators began to realize that a disproportionate number of elderly fraud victims were suffering from some level of dementia.
She wanted to know if there were medical red flags that could help securities regulators find these vulnerable seniors before they were fleeced.
Meanwhile, medical personnel at Baylor were realizing that stress from financial woes could cause physical ailments in their patients and had started looking for ways to identify the warning signs of financial trouble.
They teamed up and came up with a series of questions that doctors could ask their patients to detect signs of a condition known as mild cognitive impairment.
Roush described the condition as a subtle detonation of the mind. Seniors can be active and able to handle all the traditional activities of daily living, he said, but start to exhibit confusion when dealing with numbers. Roughly one-third of those over 71 experience this, he added.
What are the warning signs for seniors?
• Trouble paying bills because they seem confusing.
• A lack of confidence about making financial decisions alone.
• An inability to understand financial decisions that someone else is making on the senior's behalf.
• Making loans or gifts that the senior cannot afford.
• Assertions that someone is accessing the senior's accounts because money seems to be disappearing.
Over the term of the Texas pilot project, roughly 55% of doctors saw signs of cognitive impairment and financial abuse, and reported it, Roush said.
Once reported, these tips led to investigations that landed several con artists in jail, Crawford said. In fact, one financial planner who had scammed hundreds of seniors out of their life savings was recently sentenced to 99 years in prison, she said.
"We have been extremely happy with the program here in Texas," said Crawford. "The success of this pilot program has encouraged us to form more partnerships to expand this on a nationwide basis."
The new partnership is financed by the Investor Protection Trust, a nonprofit education group that was formed with money from a 1993 settlement with Wall Street firms over past wrongdoing. (Some things never change.) It will provide "pocket reference guides" to doctors with questions to ask their aging patients and a list of social service and financial service agencies to contact if they detect signs of trouble.
The program is voluntary but the coalition partners believe doctors will be willing to add these questions to their examination routine because they'll help keep seniors healthy. Financial stresses often lead to depression and other ailments.
In the meantime, Quinn said consumers can help by being vigilant about signs of trouble with their older relatives — even if one member of the family appears to be watching over the senior and isn't asking for help. It's not uncommon for financial abuse to be perpetrated by a relative, she notes.
If one member of the family seems to be isolating an aging parent or grandparent, look more closely, she suggested. Also consider it a warning sign if the older relative has a change in appearance, particularly if they stop paying attention to hygiene or if they appear overly suspicious or fearful.
If you suspect abuse — financial, emotional or physical — and don't know what to do about it, call your local Adult Protective Services office. In California, there are contacts in every county, or you can dial 211, a social services help line available in many parts of the country including Los Angeles.