April 7, 2016
Protecting Seniors’ Home Equity
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has issued and Advisory and Report for Financial Institutions on Preventing Elder Financial Abuse. The Report defines elder financial exploitation as
the illegal or improper use of an older person’s funds, property or assets. Studies suggest that financial exploitation is the most common form of elder abuse and yet only a small fraction of incidents are reported. Estimates of annual losses range from $2.9 billion to $36.48 billion. Perpetrators who target older consumers include, among others, family members, caregivers, scam artists, financial advisers, home repair contractors, and fiduciaries (such as agents under power of attorney and guardians of property).
Older people are attractive targets because they may have accumulated assets or equity in their homes and usually have a regular source of income such as Social Security or a pension. In 2011, the net worth of households headed by a consumer age 65 and older was approximately $17.2 trillion, and the median net worth was $170,500. These consumers may be especially vulnerable due to isolation, cognitive decline, physical disability, health problems, and/or the recent loss of a partner, family member, or friend.
Cognitive impairment is a key factor in why older adults are targeted and why perpetrators succeed in victimizing them. Even mild cognitive impairment (MCI) can significantly impact the capacity of older people to manage their finances and to judge whether something is a scam or a fraud. Mild cognitive impairment is an intermediate stage between the expected cognitive decline of normal aging and the more serious decline of dementia. Studies indicate that 22 percent of Americans over age 70 have MCI and about one third of Americans age 85 and over have Alzheimer’s disease. (8-9, footnotes omitted)
The CFPB recommends that financial institutions consider
- training staff to recognize abuse;
- using fraud detection technologies;
- offering age-friendly services; and
- reporting suspicious activities to authorities.
These recommendations are a step in the right direction, although they offer no panacea. As the Report acknowledges, even if financial institutions report suspicious activities to government authorities, there is no guarantee that they will be acted on. But if these recommendations are publicized, they may deter some predators who think that they can act freely within the fog of their victims’ cognitive decline. And a few well-publicized prosecutions of relatives, caregivers and advisors who violate the trust that was placed in them would help to spread the message that ripping off senior citizens is no easy path to riches.