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Seven things you can do to combat senior exploitation now

At age 95, Marvel Comics founder Stan Lee is a legendary figure in American pop culture. In the second half of the last century, the visionary comics impresario launched dozens of popular superhero titles, including “Spider-Man,” “The Incredible Hulk” and “The Avengers,” into the public sphere. Those now-classic properties have formed the basis of a multibillion-dollar film franchise series of nearly two dozen (and counting) hit movies and television series.

But this summer, Lee was at the center of a disturbing public dispute, as his daughter alleged the aging magnate’s business manager had defrauded the family of millions of dollars in assets. The business manager denied the charges, but a California judge slapped a restraining order on him in July.

It remains to be seen how his case will shake out. But it’s a jarring illustration of how difficult it can be to get a clear understanding of a situation in which someone may be a victim of financial abuse and exploitation—and a reminder that it can happen to anyone. If a prominent person with a multimillion-dollar fortune can be vulnerable to victimization, how can the rest of us protect ourselves?

August 21 is National Senior Citizens Day, which offers an opportunity for Americans to honor the contributions of our seniors. That’s also a good time, as we focus on the elder population, to look more closely at the growing threat of senior financial abuse and exploitation.

America’s senior population is growing rapidly as the Baby Boom generation continues to reach retirement age. The Pew Research Center estimates that ten thousand Americans turn 65 each day, and they project that by 2030, seniors will account for 18% of the U.S. population.

At the same time, after decades of working, saving and investing, many elder Americans have accumulated a comparatively substantial level of assets, which makes them a prime target. It’s estimated that seniors lose at least $2.9 billion annually to fraud and exploitation, according to a 2011 MetLife study, and that figure likely understates the full scope of losses since so many cases go unreported.

The financial services industry has worked extensively to raise awareness of senior financial abuse, because the industry recognizes the seriousness of the threat. Here are 7 key things you can do now to help protect yourself and your older family members and friends from the potential risk. 

Get educated about senior financial abuse and exploitation. Recognizing and understanding the risks are first steps toward protecting yourself and your loved ones. A good place to start is Project Invested’s primer on senior abuse, along with SIFMA’s Senior Investor Protection Toolkit page, which also includes helpful resources for financial professionals who work with elder clients. For additional resources, check out the recommended reading list at the bottom of this page.

Learn to recognize the signs. It’s not always easy to spot fraud, financial abuse or exploitation as it’s happening, so it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with the common signs that may suggest you need to take action. Check out this 2015 Project Invested article on common scams and what to look for to determine if you, a family member or friend may be the target of fraud, exploitation or abuse.

Talk to your parents or loved ones. Clear communication is key. Talk to your parents or family members about the risks and signs of financial abuse, and be alert to any changes in their behavior that may suggest cognitive decline or a change in financial status. Keep in mind that conversations about money and financial health should be an ongoing process, not a discrete one-time event.

What to do if you suspect abuse or exploitation. If you believe a family member, friend or loved one is currently a victim, you want to be prepared to help. Even if it’s too late to recover what was lost, you can take steps to stop further losses. SIFMA offers a one-page checklist that gives you an action plan to prevent and, if necessary, respond to a financial abuse situation. Print and review this document before you need it—you’ll be glad you did.

Talk to your financial professional. Financial professionals take the threat of senior exploitation seriously, and they can be a vital line of defense against fraud or abuse, since they’re well positioned to recognize anomalous activity in a client’s investment portfolio. Check in with your broker-dealer, portfolio manager or financial advisor and ask about their protocols for dealing with suspected financial abuse. Request a trusted contact authorization form, and use that tool to designate a family member or friend who can help protect you in the case of exploitation or abuse.

Talk to your elected officials, support positive reforms. Federal and state leaders are increasing their awareness of senior financial abuse, and they’re taking positive steps through the policy process to provide industry and law enforcement with stronger tools to combat exploitation. Learn more about the policy interventions that can help stop senior financial abuse, and urge your elected officials at the federal and state levels to take action on this critical front.

Spread the word. Once you’re up to speed on the scope of the problem, be sure to let others know what you’ve learned. Share information with friends and family to raise awareness of this vital public issue.

No one has to be a victim. Make it a priority to protect your family, friends and community from senior financial abuse and exploitation. Bookmark this page and review these resources to stay informed.

Recommended reading: 

Project Invested        

How the financial industry is stepping up to protect senior investors in 2018

How to prevent senior financial abuse                                 

Get the facts about senior financial abuse                                   

How to talk to your parents about money

Elder Fraud bill signed into law, heightening senior protections 


Senior Investor Protection Toolkit

The Red Flags of Financial Exploitation and Cognitive Decline

National Adult Protective Services Association

What is financial exploitation?

National Center on Elder Abuse

Red flags of abuse 

National Council for Aging Care

Recognizing elder abuse