When Glynnis Walker Anderson got a call from her elderly mother's neighbor who said she had taken her mom's keys and wallet "for safekeeping," alarm bells went off in her head. Anderson, a writer based outside Chicago, worried that the neighbor was planning to use her mother's credit cards , so she cancelled them all and had them reissued.
That was just the beginning of Anderson's saga. Soon, the neighbor and another individual had convinced her mother, who had Alzheimer's disease, to rewrite her will and cut Anderson out of her life. By the time her mother died, the women had stolen $20,000 and caused Anderson immeasurable pain. The experience inspired Anderson to write a book, "Stealing Joy: A True Story of Alzheimer's, Elder Abuse, and Fraud," warning others about the dangers of elder abuse and how to prevent it.
Elder abuse is a major problem in this country and is poised to be a growing one as baby boomers age. "We have an epidemic … This is a billion dollar problem," says Liz Loewy, former chief of the Elder Abuse Unit in the Manhattan District Attorney's Office. She is now general counsel and senior vice president for industry relations for EverSafe, a technology service that protects seniors from fraud.
According to the recent Safeguarding Our Seniors survey of over 2,000 Americans from Allianz Life Insurance Company, about 1 in 5 family or friends of elderly people is worried about them falling victim to financial abuse. Among those over the age of 65, 11 percent were concerned about their risk.
"The majority of financial abuse is carried on by family members or friends, and the average consumer loses $30,000," says Brenda Hart, director of consumer insights at Allianz. About 1 in every 10 victims loses over $100,000, she adds.
One of the best ways to protect yourself and your loved ones from this type of fraud is to prepare for it. Here are tips from the experts on how to do that:
1. Get your paperwork in order early.
Anderson suggests giving yourself a deadline of age 70 to make sure you have your paperwork, including an estate plan, will and health directives, in order so that if dementia sets in, you and your loved ones are prepared.
2. Be wary of new best friends.
If your aging mother suddenly has a new best friend, it might be a red flag, Anderson warns. "Once they get to that age, they don't need any new best friends," she says.
3. Leverage technology.
"This type of crime can be almost fully resolved through the use of monitoring through technology," Loewy says. EverSafe aims to do that by making it easier to monitor financial accounts.
Howard Tischler, an entrepreneur and founder of EverSafe, got the idea for the service after his mother was taken advantage of by a phone scam and lost her life savings. "We decided we could develop something to identify suspicious activity. We download financial transactions on a daily basis as well as credit reports," he explains. The service then sends out alerts if it notices something that might be wrong. The service, available through the Web and via app, costs between $7.99 and $22.99 a month, depending on the level of monitoring.
4. Double up.
When family members assist older parents with their money, it is helpful if more than one person oversees the accounts . "Having an extra set of eyes look over the accounts is critical," Loewy says. Involving a financial advisor or lawyer can also help.
5. Talk about money.
People often feel uncomfortable talking about money with family members , but it's an important step for fraud prevention, Hart says. "Keep asking your parents and your elders: 'Are there situations making you uncomfortable? Can I review your statements? Would you mind putting me as a third party on your checking account? Can I review your mail?'" she adds. Those types of conversations help boost awareness and can prevent financial crimes.
Anderson hopes that sharing her story will help prevent others from going through a similar experience. "I couldn't send one of my daughters to college because I spent so much on lawyers, but I felt I did what I had to do," she says. "The whole family is collateral damage."