Who Is Stealing Grandma's Money?

A new survey finds one in 20 older Americans have been financially exploited, often by their own family.

Grandma is an easy target.

She has some money saved up—at least more than you do—and has become more lonely and isolated in her old age, making her vulnerable for exploitation. So when she sends you out to the bank on an errand, you take a little extra withdrawal for yourself.

This isn't a hypothetical scenario. It's a response from one of the largest surveys on elder financial exploitation to date, which finds the people most likely to exploit the elderly for money are often the people closest to the victim.

The study, recently published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, surveyed 4,000 older adults in New York state. Of those who reported being exploited, more than half (57.9 percent) of their perpetrators were family members, and a total of 24.6 of the perpetrators were the victims' own adult children. Friends were the next-largest category, and home-care aides were the smallest group of the known perpetrators.

Overall, 5 percent (one in 20) of those surveyed experienced at least one incident of financial exploitation since turning 60, with 2.7 percent reporting an incident within the previous year. "This rate, coupled with the exponentially growing number of elderly in the U.S., forms the basis for a burgeoning public health crisis in need of immediate attention," the authors write.

According to the National Institute of Justice, "the United States has no national reporting mechanism to track the financial exploitation of elders," which makes studies like this all the more important. And because the survey excluded respondents in nursing homes or with mental impairments—both are factors that may contribute additional risk for exploitation—the authors of the study even suggest that their findings might be underrepresenting the true numbers. Even so, the study concludes, "If a new disease entity were discovered that afflicted nearly one in 20 adults over their older lifetimes and differentially stuck our most vulnerable subpopulations, a public health crisis would likely be declared."

The elderly are common targets for frauds and scams. Just this week, USA Today reported that elder abuse was one of the top two fastest-growing consumer complaints in 2013. "They are often the victims of tech alert scams, when fraudsters call and pretend to be with a company such as Apple or Microsoft and tell the victim their computer has been infected with a virus," the story reads. Nursing homes, the places where children send their ailing parents with the hope of keeping them safe, are also sometimes scrutinized for taking advantage of their patients.

Those are examples of institutions taking advantage of senior citizens. What the General Internal Medicine study suggests is that a lot of the exploitation against the elderly takes place close to or inside of the home.

The researchers were looking for instances where the respondents felt exploited. Exploitation was defined as having experienced any of the following (from the text of the study):

1) stolen or misappropriated money or property;

2) coercion or false pretense resulting in surrendering rights, property, or signing/changing a legal document;

3) impersonation to obtain property or services;

4) inadequate contributions toward household expenses, but respondent still had enough money for necessities; and

5) respondent was destitute and did not receive necessary assistance from family/friends.

When they broke the results down by demographics, they found that these trends in elder financial exploitation echo the patterns of a lot of societal ills—they disproportionately affect minorities and the poor. Blacks in the survey experienced exploitation at rates almost three times higher than whites—9.1 percent to 3.4 percent, respectively. A similar but narrower gap exists between the rich and poor. Six and a half percent of those making under $15,000 a year experienced exploitation, while only 3.5 percent of those making more than $30,000 did.

Stephanie Stamm contributed to this article