Stopping elder fraud in Maryland

One of the most common aspirations for any new year is to strengthen financial well-being, from saving more money to paying down debt. This January, we’ll ask you to look beyond your personal financial resolutions and help protect older Marylanders from financial fraud and abuse. One in five adults aged 65 and older has been a victim of elder financial abuse, and with up to $120,000 in losses per elder financial abuse victim, it impacts everyone — even you.

Financial exploitation causes large economic losses for businesses, families and even government programs, and it can also increase reliance on federal health care programs such as Medicaid. In fact, over the last 10 years, the Maryland Comptroller’s office has detected and blocked more than 80,000 fraudulent tax returns worth over $185 million.

Financial exploitation, in which predators operate openly, claiming victims' consent, can take place at a care facility, out in the community or even in your own home, and the stories of betrayal can be heartbreaking. Predators can be complete strangers, caregivers, dishonest telemarketers, acquaintances or even your seemingly-closest friend or family member.

One of the many stories we’ve heard recently comes from Howard Tischler, CEO of EverSafe, which provides financial analysis services to detect suspicious activity. Mr. Tischler’s own mother — a legally blind woman with no car or current driver’s license — had been sold an $80-a-month deluxe auto club membership that included regular oil changes, which he discovered when he stumbled upon the charges on a credit card bill for nearly $8,000.

For the millions of older adults who fall victim to financial fraud, the effects are often devastating and irreparable, costing approximately $2.9 billion each year. Predatory practices targeting older adults can have cascading impacts on their long-term financial well-being, even those robbing victims of small amounts.

Tomorrow, the state of Maryland will launch its first-ever “PROTECT Week” to raise awareness about elder financial abuse and how to prevent it. The weeklong campaign is made possible by a collaboration of public and private partners including the Maryland Office of the Attorney General, the Maryland Office of the Comptroller, Guidewell Financial Solutions, EverSafe, AARP Maryland and AARP Fraud Watch Network, Maryland Department of Aging, Maryland Department of Veterans Affairs, Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service, Maryland Consumer Rights Coalition, Wells Fargo, the Montgomery County Office of Consumer Protection, and The CASH Campaign of Maryland.

These local, regional and state organizations have led the charge in raising awareness about elder financial abuse knowing that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure; education and awareness are key to preventing older adults from ever becoming victimized. And we’ve come a long way:

Five years ago, Maryland law began to require banks and credit unions to report suspected financial exploitation of Marylanders age 65 and up. Two years ago, AARP launched its Fraud Watch Network designed to help combat the growing fraud problem some senior citizens have experienced. And last year, Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh appointed a dedicated Senior Asset Recovery Unit that investigated and sued on behalf of victims of elder financial abuse in Maryland.

It's difficult to know exactly how prevalent elder financial abuse is in Maryland because most cases go unreported. Most people think it will never happen to them, but just because you might not fit the stereotype doesn’t mean you are immune to the risks. Even more importantly: fraudsters aren’t known to discriminate based on income level, gender or age.

Visit www.PROTECTweek.com to access free and low-cost resources to learn more about the fastest growing form of elder abuse and how to protect yourself and your loved ones.

Anyone who suspects that an older adult is being mistreated or could be a victim of financial exploitation or fraud should contact a local long-term care ombudsman like those at the Maryland Department of Aging, or call the police. Suspicion of financial exploitation of elders can and should also be reported to the Office of the Attorney General for further investigation by calling 410-576-6575.

Helene Raynaud (hraynaud@guidewellfs.org) is the president of Guidewell Financial Solutions, a nonprofit, accredited credit counselor based in Baltimore. Peter Franchot (pfranchot@comp.state.md.us) is the comptroller for the state of Maryland.

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