DOYLESTOWN, Pa. (WLVT) — A yearlong study conducted by the Department of Aging examined over 400 reported cases of financial exploitation in Pennsylvania.
The average loss to a victim was $40,000, according to the report. While romantic and lottery scams did occur, Dept. of Aging secretary Robert Torres says victims are more commonly conned out of money by family members.
"Family members typically have a trust-based relationship with one another," Torres told PBS39. "The older adult may be dependent on family support. Most of the exploitation is done through bank withdrawals, use of debit cards or checks."
Unauthorized bank withdrawals, the study found, constituted the largest percentage of total lost. Mike Bannon, director of the Bucks County Office of Consumer Protection, advises seniors to avoid using cash.
"I tell seniors to pay by credit card or check because it’s traceable," Bannon told PBS39. "If someone asks you to buy a gift card, that’s another red flag."
After having their assets drained, the study found that many older adults applied for state assistance programs to supplement their income.
"About 322 individuals, after they were exploited, had to enroll in Medicaid and for food services through SNAP," Torres said.
Of the cases surveyed, the majority of victims were female and residents of urban communities. The average age was 79.
"They’re socially isolated and may be dependent on someone else for their daily activities," Torres explained. "Some had cognitive impairment. Unfortunately, that’s part of aging. Women also live longer than men. In some cases, they may not have managed the finances in the household before the passing of their husband."
From 2017-2018, there were over 1,400 reported cases of financial exploitation in Pennsylvania, with losses totaling $58 million. Torres says many cases are never reported.
"Perhaps upon learning that they were victimized, they do not want to disrupt the family dynamics," he said. "They may also be scared of losing what support they’re getting."
Bannon encourages people to call offices like his, which offer resources like the Crimes Against Older Adults Task Force, for help.
"Trust your gut instinct if you think something is wrong," Bannon said. "You can call agencies like ours and talk to people who are here to discuss it. They will not be judgmental."
Torres’ office is now pushing for an update to the Older Adults Protective Services Act. The 1987 law established a number of protections for older adults, but the secretary says it’s outdated.
"When that law was written, there were certain types of health care settings that were not in existence at the time," Torres said. "We want to expand the list of facilities that are covered under that law, and by extension, the employees who work there. That would make the employees mandatory reporters who must report any type of elder abuse."
The state Senate has already passed a bill to update the act. Torres hopes it will pass the House of Representatives on or before November 30th when the legislative session ends.
Anyone suspecting elder abuse can call the statewide reporting hotline at 1-800-490-8505. It operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week.