The phone rings, and the caller leaves a voicemail. A robotic voice recites: “Hello, this call is an urgent official notice from the IRS. The reason for this call is to inform you that the IRS is filing a lawsuit in your name. To get more information regarding this case file, call back on our department number.” How do you react to this voicemail? Delete it? Call the number given? Your decision has the potential to put both your finances and your well-being at great risk.
Would you recognize that this is fraud?
According to a meta study conducted by the American Public Health Association in 2017, one in every 18 older adults every year is a victim of fraud, yet many of these cases go unreported. Fraud can manifest itself in many ways, such as door-to-door soliciting, telemarketing, internet/online ads, international fraud, and health care fraud. Financial exploitation, or the fraudulent and illegal manipulation of another’s resources, is another prevalent form of fraud.
Victims of elder financial abuse in the United States lose close to $3 billion each year. Not only is this a financial detriment but a physical and emotional one. Financial exploitation has been associated with declines in health, evidenced by increased rates of hospitalization, long-term care admissions, and even mortality.
What can explain the increased prevalence of fraud among older adults? A lifetime’s worth of retirement savings paired with a common deficit in internet and computer safety practices certainly heighten risk. Some research leads us to believe older adults’ greater susceptibility can be associated with natural cognitive decline and various socioemotional factors. The natural aging process involves increased difficulty in reasoning and decision-making ability, a 2012 study found. Research has shown that older adults have a tendency to be more trustworthy, increasing their vulnerability to fraud. Older adults also display a decreased sensitivity to deception cues, with less ability to detect lies.
As fraud frequently occurs in social contexts, it is important to consider the ways in which socioemotional functioning plays a role. Studies, including one in 2014, have shown that older adults possess a significant bias toward positive information versus negative information in terms of processing patterns. The ability to detect negative and suspicious information is essential for maintaining financial safety, putting older adults at a deficit in being able to accurately detect untrustworthy and deceptive behaviors. These cognitive vulnerabilities play a part in making older adults more susceptible to fraud and financial exploitation.
Minnesota is certainly not exempt from these problems, yet concrete actions have been instituted to help alleviate this reality. During his term, Gov. Mark Dayton signed bipartisan legislation, the Safe Seniors Financial Protection Act, in hopes of providing more solidified mechanisms to spot fraud earlier and to better defend seniors against exploitation. These changes allow financial professionals greater ability to report suspicious activity observed in the accounts of potentially vulnerable older adults and allow a delay in such financial transactions while investigations are in place. This change is certainly moving forward in a positive direction; yet more initiatives, increased advocacy, and greater overall awareness are still necessary.
In addition to policy and law advances, financial institutions are taking it upon themselves to be wary of fraud, increasingly instituting cyber monitoring for clients over the age of 65. Although the internet is definitely not a perfect solution to prevent fraudulent activity, it could substantially decrease the amount and seriousness of financial exploitation. This practice has been viewed as age discrimination, treating people over the age of 40 differently than those under 40, and even a violation of personal privacy.
Americans crave individuality, autonomy, and privacy, which may be infringed upon with increased cyber security, a potential ethical dilemma.
Above all, preventative education is the most effective and efficient way to reduce occurrences of fraud. It is not only pertinent that programs be designed to educate older adults about the overwhelming presence of fraudulence and how to detect it but also to educate middle-aged adults to notice unusual financial behavior and signs of fraud on behalf of older adults.
A constant variable while planning educational opportunities is recognizing the investment of time, money, and effort. Such statewide changes are certainly moving the issue forward in a positive direction; yet more initiatives, increased advocacy, and greater overall awareness are needed.
Elder injustice is an evolving issue that demands evolving solutions.
Estee Welo and Eva Knee are recent graduates of St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, who dedicated a semester researching and studying the nuances of elderly-targeted financial exploitation, specifically through telephones and computers.