Financial abuse of elderly people

Say the word “abuse” and most people automatically think sexual or physical. But, for older people living in their own homes, financial abuse has been revealed as the second most prevalent form of abuse, behind neglect.

According to the recent government-funded report on abuse and neglect of older people in the UK, financial abuse affects seven in 1,000 older people and includes theft of money, possessions or property, fraud, embezzlement and extortion.

The report reveals that family members are the most common perpetrators, something that comes as no surprise to Gary FitzGerald, chief executive of Action on Elder Abuse. An analysis of more than 400 calls about financial abuse to the organisation’s helpline in 2006 revealed that £2.1m was reported as stolen, defrauded or coerced from elderly victims and nearly a quarter of callers claimed their houses had been sold or taken without their consent. Most victims were women older than 81, and most perpetrators were their sons and daughters aged between 41 and 60.

FitzGerald says: “Residential homes are robustly controlled, so this is more likely to happen in people’s own homes, by family, friends, neighbours or home helps. The justification used by sons and daughters is that the money is their inheritance.”

The report recounts the story of three daughters and one son who took their mother to the bank to sign a mandate so that they could withdraw money from her account. They withdrew £5,500, which she eventually managed to get back.

“We need to see what we can get banking institutions to do about this,” says FitzGerald. “In the US, they are developing training packages to recognise theft from older people and fraud and how it happens.”

Here, some banks do train staff to recognise theft but it’s not mandatory. And Brunel University is to conduct research into how financial institutions become alert to possible cases of abuse and the actions they take.

The police, meanwhile, commonly view this situation as a domestic one and tend to stay clear, just as they used to do with domestic violence, says FitzGerald. “We need to transfer what we know about domestic violence and those relationships where someone controls somebody else to this situation.”

Another disturbing aspect of the abuse and neglect study for FitzGerald is that 30% of financial abuse was committed by care workers. “There is a mixture of the opportunistic thief and the grooming thief. We tend to think of grooming with regard to children, but a home help will form a relationship with the older person and over time exploit that. They’ll chat about their family and then, for example, say how their daughter is having difficulty at university. At some point, the older person will say ‘let me give you money to help’. We don’t do enough about this type of undue influence.”

He cites an example of an elderly man who came to the attention of Action on Elder Abuse. He lived in a rural area and was befriended at his local pub by a couple who bought him drinks. He started inviting them to his house for drinks and, after a while, they moved in. He ended up moving into the back room and later found that he no longer owned the house.

Pension collection is another area of concern. The government has been phasing out pension books, and now 98% of pensions are paid directly into bank accounts. Older people are given a card and PIN to access their money. But if they are unable to go to the bank, their only option is to give these to family members, friends or care workers to take out the money for them.

“It’s possible that as many as eight home helps are in possession of one person’s PIN to get their pension,” FitzGerald says. “With the pension book, you could only defraud the amount that was signed for. With a PIN, you can clear out the bank account. It’s wide open to abuse.”

One social worker in a London borough, who wished to remain anonymous, has seen a rise in financial abuse in the 14 years that she has worked with older people. She agrees that the situation has been compounded by the way pensions are paid.

“Accounts are being emptied of life savings,” she says. “Police take statements but I haven’t known a case yet where they have pursued it because the PIN has been given. Banks don’t reimburse, even if all money has been lost. These people don’t seem to be brought to justice.”

The social worker knows of one woman who had £250 taken out of her account each day for a couple of months after giving her PIN to two people she trusted. “She was articulate and would have made a good witness but the case wasn’t pursued because the police said she had knowingly given her PIN to someone, which the banks tell you not to do.”

The British Bankers’ Association is aware of the problem. A spokesperson says: “We are working with Help the Aged to find a way forward because we recognise that there is a problem with this not just for those who are elderly.”

Another, largely unrecognised, problem stems from direct payments. Set up to give more freedom and choice to service users, unforeseen consequences are beginning to arise. “There was a push for us to promote direct payments but not everybody is suitable,” says the social worker. “Some people don’t have a network of trusted people and for them it can be open to abuse. Quite a large lump sum goes direct to their bank account and sometimes there is no evidence of the money going towards their care at all it goes into the pockets of those who have wormed their way into their homes.”

She came across one elderly man whose agency domiciliary care worker was sacked but on his wishes continued to visit him. Her mother, a convicted thief, was also on the scene. He used direct payments and gave them his PIN so they could do his shopping.

“By the time I went to see him he was in debt and living in squalor. I had to remove him there and then. I got the police involved but no action was taken because it was one person’s word against the other.”

She also came across a wealthy, elderly woman who was preyed on by her neighbours. “They had keys to her home and, when she went into hospital, they would go in and use the phone and take things. She didn’t want to move and she didn’t want help because she was worried about repercussions. She said it was better the devil you know.

“Not being able to do anything about it is very frustrating. People are losing their life savings and money for their funerals and nothing is being done.”

Key findings

● Men aged 85 and older are more likely to have experienced financial abuse than men in the younger age groups.

● The risk of financial abuse increases for those living alone those receiving services those in bad health older men and women who are divorced, separated or lonely.

● A quarter of perpetrators live in the older person’s home.

● About 30% of financial abuse is committed by domiciliary care workers.

Source: The UK Study of Abuse and Neglect of Older People


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Natalie Valios

This article appeared in the 30 August issue under the headline “Cleaned out by the ones you trust”

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