Avoiding Elder Financial Abuse, Stefanie West, Esq

Lafayette Senior Services Newsletter
Winter Edition, 2011

As an estate planning attorney, many of my clients are seniors. Unfortunately, I have heard dozens of stories of elder financial abuse. Sometimes there are means to reverse the damage. In other instances, it’s too late.

I have a wonderful client who I will refer to as Virginia. Virginia is a retired school teacher and loves to research and write books on religion in her spare time. While she has many friends at church, because she lives alone with no family around, I told her to give my business card to all of her family members just in case. Luckily, she did.

A few months ago, I received a call from Virginia’s sister who lives in the mid-west. According to Virginia’s sister, a stranger from Arizona “cold-called” Virginia. He told Virginia that he knew that she was trying hard to get a book published. He offered to give her $40,000 in cash to publish her book if she would give him her social security number. Because the caller knew about her latest book, she was convinced that he was legitimate and agreed. Virginia didn’t realize that she was in any danger. Luckily, her sister knew that something sounded “fishy” and reached out to me before it was too late.

When I called Virginia to talk to her about this, it didn’t take long for her to realize that she had put herself in financial danger. Together we reported this predator to the District Attorney’s Office and put a watch on her social security number with the Social Security Administration.

While Virginia was able to avoid financial harm, I can recount other stories where the harm was irreversible and there was nothing that could be done to get the funds back. With financial abuse, life savings can disappear in the blink of an eye. According to California’s Attorney General’s Office, Americans lose an estimated $40 billion each year due to the fraudulent sales of goods and services over the telephone. Much of this fraud is perpetrated on seniors. The most widespread abuses include telemarketing fraud, identity theft, predatory lending and home improvement and estate planning scams.

Just say “no” to prize offers, travel packages, get-rich-quick schemes, and even pleas from unknown charitable or religious organizations. In telephone solicitations, never give your social security or credit card number over the phone. While this advice may sound basic and elementary, these fraudulent schemes still "work" and people in our community fall victim to them everyday.

Tell the people in your life who you trust and care about if you have given your financial information to somebody over the telephone who you have just met. And don’t be embarrassed if you have given your information to somebody who you now feel might be untrustworthy. You are not alone. We all have made mistakes which cause us to feel embarrassed.

If you believe you have been the victim of elder financial abuse, or know somebody who might have been victimized, please contact Contra Costa County Adult Protective Services (APS). Adult Protective Services provides assistance 24-hours a day to elderly and dependent individuals who are victims of physical, emotional or financial harm or abuse. Call toll free: (877) 839-4347.

Stefanie West is an estate planning and elder law attorney who is a resident of Lafayette and a member of the Lafayette Senior Services Commission.

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