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Inside Jobs: Elder Fraud by Relatives or Caregivers

Frauds and thefts against the elderly by people they know and trust are surprisingly common. Examples cited by the Justice Department and other sources include stealing money; cashing checks without permission; transferring the ownership of property (see Fake Documents Used to "Steal" Homes); committing identity theft; "borrowing" funds without intending to repay; and denying services to the elderly person – even medical care – to pocket the money.

Friends and relatives also have convinced senior citizens to add their name onto bank accounts, living trusts or wills (perhaps as the sole beneficiary) or grant a power of attorney (giving total control over the person's financial affairs). "One problem identifying certain frauds as frauds is that, on the surface, the actions involved can be for legitimate purposes," said Michael Benardo, manager of the FDIC's Financial Crimes Section. "What makes the matter worse is when the elderly person can't or won't report a fraud, perhaps because they're ashamed to admit that they've allowed themselves to be taken advantage of by someone they loved or trusted."

Seniors and their loved ones should be very suspicious if they notice any of the following: A relative or caregiver becomes extremely interested in the elderly person's financial affairs. A caregiver is reluctant to spend money on necessary medical treatment. Someone prevents the elderly person from talking on the phone or doesn't pass along phone messages. There are unauthorized withdrawals from checking or savings accounts. The caregiver claims that some money is "missing." Or, there are new or recently changed legal documents, such as wills or "powers of attorney" that give this other person rights to conduct transactions.

What should you do in these circumstances? "Talk to another family member, a lawyer who could intervene on your behalf, or someone else you know you can trust," advised Susan van den Toorn, an FDIC attorney.