Financial abuse of elderly population remains a problem in Canada

Kelly Putter
Financial elder abuse affects thousands of older Canadians every year, and it’s most often at the hands of the ones they love. (CNBC)

The first sign that Gus O’Brien’s finances were in trouble was when a sheriff delivered a notice that the bank was about to begin foreclosure proceedings on his house in Toronto’s west end.

O’Brien had entrusted the management of his mortgage, his bank accounts and his earnings to a close family friend, who he’d known since birth. For years, O’Brien turned over his earnings each month to the friend, who was expected to deposit the money into his bank account. O’Brien was a self-employed psychotherapist who worked from home, often receiving payment in cash and personal cheques.

“All hell broke loose after the sheriff arrived,” recalls Peter Foote, a friend of O’Brien’s who lived in the house at the time. “We learned that the mortgage hadn’t been paid for months and, in the end, when everything was tallied, Gus had been swindled out of about $150,000.”

O’Brien, who was in his 60s at the time, managed to borrow the money to pay his arrears so he could keep his house. The perpetrator, who owned half of the house but didn’t live in it, signed over his share to O’Brien to reimburse him for what he had stolen.

“That was a really difficult time for Gus,” says Foote. “He was really distraught and drinking heavily. But I think more than being cheated out of his savings, it was the betrayal of a good and seemingly faithful friend that bothered him most.”

‘Very much a hidden issue’

No one knows for sure how many exactly, but it’s believed that the vast majority of seniors who are defrauded in Canada are most often done in by a loved one.

The crime is perpetrated by those who are in a position of trust: spouses, children, relatives, friends, neighbours and care givers. Strangers, to a lesser degree, are also guilty of scams against the elderly, which include false promises of prizes, telemarketing and fraudulent home repairs. There is even the grandparent or emergency scam in which the fraudster claims to be a grandchild in urgent need of cash.

But usually the financial abuse of Canada’s largely unsuspecting elderly population is much more subtle. Often, it begins quietly enough such as with a niece pocketing Aunt Sally’s change after a trip to the grocery store. But the con can become more calculated and sinister, when that niece insists that she be named jointly on Aunt Sally’s bank accounts.

“Elder abuse is still very much a hidden issue,” says Raeann Rideout, a consultant with Elder Abuse Ontario, a non-profit community agency promoting safety and respect for older Ontarians.  “We need to bring it out in the open and help those who are currently being abused, targeted by unscrupulous opportunists, as well as provide the education necessary to help prevent abuse in the future. Caring for our aging population is everyone’s concern. “

June 15 is World Elder Abuse Awareness Day.

The prevalence of financial abuse is wider than you might think. A 2014-15 study conducted by the National Initiative for the Care of the Elderly (NICE) found that financial abuse occurred at a rate of 2.6 per cent. That represents more than 244,000 Canadians. Another study by credit union Vancity conducted in 2014 found 41 per cent of elderly adults living in Vancouver and the lower mainland regions have experienced some form of financial exploitation.

For many reasons, it’s believed that the incidents of financial abuse are vastly under-reported. According to the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre, less than five per cent of fraud victims report their experiences to law enforcement agencies. One study claims that for every case of reported financial abuse, 23 are not reported. Another says that number is as high as 44. Seniors are often vulnerable, lonely, fearful and trusting so many prefer not to make waves.

Need for prevention growing more critical

Deemed a mounting crisis in Canada, many expect the problem will only grow as Canada’s population ages.

Canadian financial institutions are doing their part when it comes to helping protect the elderly against financial exploitation. The Canadian Bankers Association (CBA) works with its member banks to help frontline staff recognize the signs of financial mistreatment. Banks are on the lookout for large or atypical withdrawals or unusual loan requests, for example, says Andrew Perez, spokesperson for the CBA. Besides raising awareness and educating the public about the issue, the banks also have the law on their side, allowing it to reach out to police, next of kin and other authorized persons if it believes an individual is the victim of abuse.

“Banks also have internal training and guidance that helps their employees watch out for and escalate internally potential instances of financial abuse or fraud,” says Perez.

The CIBC, for instance, will place an alert on the client’s account or ensure invoices and bills are presented at the time of payment and in the name of the client only. The bank can also restrict access to a client’s accounts if unusual activity is suspected.

“If fraud or financial elder abuse is suspected, our primary objective is ensuring that all transactions processed are for the sole benefit of our client,” says CIBC spokesperson Jessica Botelho. “We work to identify suspicious or unusual activity and escalate concerns to CIBC’s specialized elder investigations team.  If necessary, we will alert the appropriate authorities.”

How to combat financial elder abuse

Contributing causes toward the abuse of seniors are vast and varied. Ageism and negative attitudes toward the elderly, a lack of services and long-term care beds, affordable housing and social vulnerability were each pegged as to why seniors are common targets for abuse in submissions to the Ontario Human Rights Commission.

If you think a friend, relative or neighbour is being mistreated, whether financially or otherwise, here are some warning signs to watch out for:

  • Injuries such as bruises and scratches are sometimes telltale signs as is depression and missing regular and previously enjoyed social activities such as attending church;
  • Changes in living arrangements, such as a previously uninvolved relative moving in;
  • Cancellation of cable, phone or internet because bills haven’t been paid; or
  • Signs of neglect such as no food in the house or not having proper clothing or working hearing aids.

Aside from keeping a close eye on the comings and goings of the elderly, there are other ways to protect seniors. Rideout says designating someone as your financial power of attorney (POA) is important should you become incapacitated. In certain cases, picking your child or children as POA may not be a great idea as there is potential for conflict of interest. A child, for example, may choose a poorer quality retirement home for dad because he doesn’t want the expense to eat up his inheritance.

And seniors should have some kind of game plan in place for their money. They need to communicate their plans to the POA. If you’re planning to pay for your grandson’s university education or you want your pension cheque to go to a friend in need, be sure to share your thoughts.

Also review your POA to ensure that you still want the designate to represent you should something happen.

“Some people may have done the POA 10 years ago and now they’re not as close,” says Rideout. “Review it annually to make sure it’s up to date.”

Seniors should also keep as close as possible tabs on financial records. Look at your bank statements, deposits and withdrawals and credit card statements. Finally, never sign a document just because someone is trying to force or guilt you into doing so. Be sure to fully understand what it is you’re being asked to sign and why.

There are a number of organizations to turn to for help. If you know of a fraud or scam contact the Canadian Anti-Fraud call centre at 1-888-495-8801. Ontario 211 offers round the clock assistance in different languages and has partnered with the Ontario Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse (ONPEA) or try the Seniors Safety Line at 1-866-299-1011.  You can call the Victim Support Line toll-free at 1-888-579-2888 or 416-314-2447 in the Toronto area. Kerby Rotary House in Calgary at (403) 265-0661 is the first and only full service shelter in Canada for abused seniors.

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