More seniors fall victim to fraud in Florida compared to anywhere else in the country.
Fourteen of the 50 U.S. metro areas with the highest mix of fraud and related complaints are here, according to a 2016 report by the Federal Trade Commission. Among the top 25: Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach metro areas. Also near the top of the list: Tampa, Gainesville and Homosassa Springs, located northwest of Orlando.
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The concentration of older adults, close to 20 percent of Florida’s residents are older than 65, means more people receiving Social Security and retirement payments who are lonely or isolated are likely to pay attention to a pitch from a stranger or help out a loved one.
“This is especially a concern given our large senior citizen population,” said FBI Supervisory Special Agent John J. Bernardo, who oversees identify theft investigations for the FBI’s Miami office, in an email. “Con artists know that senior citizens are a good ‘target’ for fraud schemes because they are most likely to have a ‘nest egg,’ own their own home and have excellent credit.”
And the elderly are more trusting, more likely not to report a crime or if they do, may be a poor witness, Bernardo added.
Financial exploitation — the theft of money, property and belongings — has been called the “crime of the 21st century.” Research reveals seniors lose approximately $36.5 billion each year to financial abuses like scams, health care and health insurance fraud, counterfeit prescription drugs, and reverse mortgage fraud.
“Culturally in South Florida, we are so used to living with our parents and they are used to helping us,” said Alina Becker, elder abuse prevention coordinator for the Alliance for Aging. “I think elder abuse is where child abuse was 30 years ago. People are not sure what it is and since they don’t know, they also don’t know it’s illegal.”
Here are some of the steps to take to avoid elder financial exploitation:
1. Protect your personally identifiable information. Limit access to your name, Social Security and Medicare numbers, date and place of birth, maiden names, etc. If you need help managing finances, ask someone you trust to act as your agent.
“As people age, they are very easily swayed,” said Corrine Markey, founder and president of The Seniors’ Answer, a money managing service located in South Florida. “It’s common knowledge not to carry your Social Security number, but did you know your Medicare card is identical to your Social Security number?”
2. Recognize common perpetrators. The most-trusted — family members, longtime friends or neighbors, paid caregivers — are typically the culprits. Statistics show 90 percent of abusers are related to the elderly adult.
3. Watch for warning signs:
▪ Unexplained withdrawals from bank accounts or transfers between accounts.
▪ Bank statements not arriving.
▪ Changes in attorneys or banks.
▪ Missing property or belongings.
▪ New authorized signers on accounts or suspicious signatures on checks or other documents.
4. Protect your valuables and maintain sound financial records. “Know what you have including things at home. It could be artwork or jewelry or heirlooms from the family,” Becker said. “Have a list of things and share that list with more than one relative.”
5. Be active. The more seniors socialize, the less likely they are likely to fall victim.
6. Report abuse. Only one out of 44 cases of elder financial abuse is ever reported, according to the National Adult Protective Services Association.