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What to Do If You or Someone You Love Has Been Financially Exploited

As with those who have endured other types of abuse, victims of financial elder abuse often feel they can't or shouldn't seek recourse.

Most commonly perpetrators of financial exploitation -- which can range from stealing Social Security checks to taking over assets -- are family members, caregivers or others known and trusted by those who are victimized. That can make individuals who are financially exploited all the more reluctant to come forward, and experts say perpetrators often bank on this or pressure victims not to speak up as well to keep their indiscretions from seeing the light of day -- and stave off a day in court.

That betrayal by a family member or another trusted person is especially hard on those who are financially abused, says Sarah Barnard, a social worker who manages an elder abuse prevention program at WISE & Healthy Aging, a nonprofit social services organization in Santa Monica, California. On top of that, many who've been financially exploited feel shame and guilt, and that may be reinforced by victim-blaming. "It's just people's way of distancing themselves, saying, 'Oh that wouldn't happen to me,'" Barnard says. "People feel so much pain," she adds. "They feel like they can't reach out and get support, because they feel like they're not allowed to feel victimized in a way."

[See: 11 Things Seniors Should Look for in a Health Provider.]

But as experts note, the widespread nature of financial exploitation shows it can happen to anyone. Increasingly, states are looking at new ways to legally address financial exploitation -- to better address and deter this form of abuse as the U.S. population ages and, experts say, increasing numbers are vulnerable. Most states currently criminalize financial elder abuse, says Matthew Andres, director of University of Illinois College of Law's Elder Financial Justice Clinic, which provides free legal services to victims of financial exploitation. That means in addition to laws already on the books to prosecute things like theft, there are "enhanced" penalties or additional charges that may be filed in financial exploitation cases involving seniors or vulnerable adults that could increase jail time for perpetrators.

What's more, Andres notes that a handful of states now have statutes in place allowing older or vulnerable adults -- such as someone with cognitive or mental impairment -- to sue specifically for elder financial exploitation; Andres says states with so-called elder financial exploitation civil causes of action include Arizona, California, Florida, Oregon, Minnesota, Utah, Illinois and Washington. (In general, in cases where victims are deemed to be unable to act on their own behalf, due, for instance, to cognitive impairment like severe dementia, another person acting under power of attorney or a public guardian may file suit on their behalf.)

A key feature of elder financial exploitation civil causes of action is that they allow victims to sue for multiple times the amount lost -- typically two or three times the amount -- and also to recover attorneys' fees for bringing the case, Andres says. "It's both to punish people more and act as a deterrent for this kind of behavior but also to encourage settlement of these cases," he says. "Because somebody is more likely to give back 100 percent of the money that is taken if they know that at the end of the case they may have to give back 300 percent of the money that was taken." In addition, being able to recover attorneys' fees can help in finding a lawyer to take an elder financial abuse case, which can be challenging to litigate. "They're complex cases and a lot of attorneys just don't want to get involved in recovery -- recovery may be difficult," he says. "So rewarding attorneys' fees is important to help people get representation."

[See: 5 Ways to Cope With Mild Cognitive Impairment.]

In the rest of states without elder financial exploitation civil statutes, individuals can still sue to recover losses. But commonly they may not be able to recover more than 100 percent or attorneys' fees. Frequently property or money stolen is quickly expended, with nothing left to recover. That's another reason experts say it's critical that victims as well as anyone who suspects elder financial abuse report it immediately to authorities. Call local law enforcement or contact your local Adult Protective Services office to report financial exploitation -- the earlier, the better to best prevent damages from mounting.

Don't forget, too, experts say, that the cost of financial abuse goes far beyond the monetary loss. Rather, it should be treated like other types of abuse or trauma, Barnard says. "Victims and their families should know that services like counseling and case management can help them heal and stabilize after being financially abused. The victim may need help with basic needs like reliable caregiving, food, transportation and housing." This may involve getting help from numerous agencies; Barnard recommends looking up social services in their area to see what's offered.

Therapy may also be helpful to address the fallout from financial abuse. Studies have found increases in depression and anxiety associated with financial exploitation, and experts say it may increase risk for suicide as well. Therapy can help address mental health concerns, Barnard says. "It can help elders process the shame and betrayal that many victims feel after being taken advantage of by those who they may have trusted."

Dr. Robert Roush, a professor of geriatrics at the Huffington Center on Aging at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, emphasizes the importance of this kind of "psychological first aid" to help those affected feel safe again. In addition, it's important that those who have been victimized don't make any major financial decisions right away -- such as in an attempt to try to recoup losses -- says Roush, who is the medical project director for the Elder Investment Fraud and Financial Exploitation Prevention Program (or EIFFE) Prevention Program. Instead, the extent of the loss first needs to be determined, and it's important to speak with professionals, such as social workers who deal with financial abuse cases, financial advisors and possibly with attorneys experienced in dealing with such cases -- if considering legal action -- about next steps.

[See: 6 Ways to Age Well and Save Money Doing It.]

Apart from taking action to recover monetary losses, experts say victims of financial abuse most especially need support to weather the storm and reduce the likelihood of re-victimization. "Check in with vulnerable elders to reduce isolation and loneliness, as those are factors that increase their likelihood of being exploited," Barnard says. That might include seeing if they're interested in going to a local senior center or getting involved with a church they attend, she suggests. Providing non-judgmental support is critical to begin to address and recover in a holistic way all that was really lost, experts say, when a relationship was financially exploited to profit the abuser. As Barnard points out, "The vast majority of people who are financially abused get into that position because they are looking out for others."

This article was written with the support of a journalism fellowship from New America Media, the Gerontological Society of America and the John A. Hartford Foundation.

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