How Doctors Can Prevent Fraud Among Elderly

Medical professionals can play a role by asking vulnerable patients about their money management.

By SHARE
widemodern_elderlyblack_071713.jpg

A reader, Thomas, recently wrote to say that he is struggling to keep his father, age 98, safe from fraudsters. “My father has used a computer for the last 20 years, but he has now lost most of the awareness of many routine, necessary things to do to protect himself online,” he writes. His father, he adds, surfs the Web just enough to get himself into trouble, including making contact with strangers who then call him and send him mail.

Thomas, who asked to be identified by his first name only, urges his father not to talk to strangers on the phone or install unfamiliar programs on his computer, but his father does so anyway. Plus, Thomas says, his father would be furious if anyone took away his computer. Thomas wants to know what he can do to help keep his father safe.

The answer just might be at the doctor’s office. A recent survey from the Investor Protection Trust, a nonprofit focused on investor education, found that more than 80 percent of doctors and nurses say they can play an important role in recognizing and reporting the warning signs of financial fraud among the elderly.

The majority of the 600 respondents also said they think cognitive impairment makes seniors more vulnerable to fraud, and they would be willing to learn more about how to spot the signs that an elderly patient had experienced financial or investment fraud. One in five respondents said they often see elderly fraud victims.

[See: 10 Things to Watch When Interest Rates Go Up.]

Indeed, Thomas is not alone in his concern about his father. According to Don Blandin, chief executive of the Investor Protection Trust, one in five Americans over age of 65 “have been swindled or victimized by a financial fraud.” That adds up to more than 7 million people. “Doctors and nurses must play an important frontline role if we are going to a better job of spotting older Americans who have been or are being victimized by investor fraud and other financial exploitation,” he said on a call discussing the recent survey.

What should doctors and nurses be looking out for? Robert Roush, director of the Texas Consortium Geriatric Education Center at the Baylor College of Medicine, says sudden changes in appearance or demeanor “suggestive of self-neglect,” increasing frailty or inability to care for oneself, signs of depression or mild cognitive impairment can all be warning signs of financial fraud. Another sign is a sudden change in living arrangements, such as moving in with an adult child or friend, which could suggest unstable finances.

[See: 10 Risky Investments Billionaires Can't Resist.]

According to the Investor Protection Trust, a caregiver who is overly protective, social isolation, and alcohol or drug abuse are also potential red flags. Doctors or nurses who observe these kinds of behaviors can ask questions, starting with, “We find that some older adults worry about money; may I ask you a few questions about this?” Follow ups include asking about who manages the patient’s money on a daily basis and how that’s going, if the patient ever runs out of money at the end of the month and if the patient has any regrets about recent financial decisions. The doctor or nurse can also ask if patients have given power of attorney to another person and, if they have a will, if anyone has asked them to change it recently.

Doctors and nurses who are worried about a patient or suspect he or she might be the victim of fraud can connect patients or their caregivers to other sources, including the National Center on Elder Abuse, Adult Protective Services and the Investor Protection Trust. State securities regulators can also check the backgrounds of people who are approaching clients about managing their investments, Blandin says.

The North American Securities Administrators Association has a “senior investor resource center” on its website, which urges seniors to avoid strangers offering unusual or too-good-to-be-true deals. It also recommends taking special care during difficult times, such as after the hospitalization or death of a spouse, when a con artist might be looking to take advantage of the situation and prey on fears.

[See: 10 Dangers of Mobile Banking.]

Roush points out that unlike younger Americans, the elderly don’t have time to make up for any losses sustained in a fraud. That’s why he urges medical professionals to be on the lookout for problems, and to intervene when they see one – just as they would if a patient displayed symptoms of a physical illness.