Financial Exploitation of the Elderly: Can You Do the Math?

By Pamela D. Wilson, CSA, MS, BS/BA, CG

I recently received a letter with an AARP logo telling me that I may have sewer line issues and that I should contact a particular company to have an investigation completed or I might be personally liable for damage to my sewer line and to the homes of my neighbors. I took a moment and was able to review a logical process in my mind that confirmed that my house is on a well. If there is a well then there is no sewer line. If there is an issue it would be with my septic tank not my sewer line. If there is no sewer line then there is no potential for damage or to the homes of my neighbors, who also by the way have wells and septic systems.

My next thought was that the sender of the letter obviously didn’t check to make certain I was on city water with a sewer line. The next thought was that they were sending thousands of letters to residents who might not be able to review a logical thought process that would confirm that the letter was a scam. This thought made me angry, however I confirmed with the police that the letter was not “illegal”. What a shame that some older adult in my neighborhood would likely participate in this scam and have no recourse.

Research indicates that many variables affect the ability of an older adult to succumb to financial abuse or making a poor medical decision. One variable is a decline in arithmetic skills. Another variable is specific to the concept of “numeracy” Numeracy is different from adding or subtracting numbers. Numeracy relates to mental engagement, comprehension, and the ability to use numbers or math skills to make a decision. Numeracy also involves the ability to gauge probability that relates not only to financial but to medical decision making.

You might be amazed to know that many older adults fall for these scam letters and make poor medical decisions. Physical and mental health, and dependency on others are factors that increase the likelihood of financial abuse and related mistreatment.

Numeracy is an important skill that is affected by other factors like prior education and the ability to use numbers for practical purposes. I received another letter on behalf of a client stating that my client’s home loan “might” be in default. My client owns the home free and clear, thus again logic would indicate that the letter was a scam.

How might one go through this process from a logical perspective if there are memory issues? The first question to ask: is there a check written monthly or an automatic withdrawal occurring for a mortgage payment? If no check or automatic withdrawal occurs, then there is no mortgage. If there is no mortgage, then it is not possible that a loan might be in default. Next step: toss or burn the letter.

It is important for older adults to utilize the assistance of family members or professionals when managing finances, completing financial transactions, or when responding to financial mail becomes challenging. I have personally known older adults who wrote checks emptying their bank accounts to scams promising more money, ownership of land in a foreign country, or funds required to claim a lottery.

Evaluation of financial information requires deliberate reasoning and decision making skills which may be challenging when we are young and becomes more difficult with age. The skill to realize that a subject matter may be out of the scope of one’s ability or expertise is important especially when making financial or medical decisions.

It is often when we rely on our own thought processes without consulting others or experts that we are more likely to make errors. It is also when we fail to ask questions or the right questions that we fail.

It’s never too early to consider appointing a financial or medical power of attorney to assist with these decisions when aging occurs and reasoning and decision making skills become faulty. Protect yourself and your loved ones from financial exploitation and from making poor medical decisions by putting a plan in place long before the need arises.

©2017 Pamela D. Wilson. All Rights Reserved.

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