LOS ANGELES — Between fraudulent phone calls, phishing emails, and various other online schemes, there are plenty of opportunities nowadays for older, not so tech-savvy, adults to become victims of a financial scam. Amazingly, a new study finds that it’s not far-away con artists and strangers who are more likely to prey on vulnerable seniors. Instead, acts of financial elder abuse are committed more frequently by a victim’s own family members.
Researchers at the University of Southern California utilized data collected by the National Center on Elder Abuse (NCEA) for the study. More specifically, they focused on a NCEA hotline used as a resource for people looking to report, or seek information regarding, elder abuse of any kind. The study’s authors analyzed the collected data from the hotline, identified the most common types of reported elder abuse and profiled the most common perpetrators of such abuse.
After examining almost 2,000 calls placed between August 2014 and June 2017, researchers concluded that 42% (818 calls) alleged legitimate abuse situations. Of those cases, financial abuse was the most common, accounting for 55% (449 calls) of the abuse reports.
To the researchers’ surprise, they found that family members, not strangers, were the most common perpetrators of elder financial abuse.
In fact, family members were the most frequent perpetrators of elder abuse across all cases — 48% of abuse-related calls in which the relationship to the victim could be determined. Financial abuse was the most common family-related complaint (61%), but a number of other disturbing allegations were also prevalent, including emotional abuse (35%), physical abuse (12%), neglect (20.1%), and sexual abuse (0.3%).
Even more unsettling, in many cases a family member was committing more than one type of abuse. Among calls reporting family abuse, over 32% listed multiple abuse situations.
“We expected to find that financial abuse was the most common abuse reported,” explains lead author Dr. Gali Weissberger, in a statement. “But despite the high rates of financial exploitation perpetrated by scammers targeting older adults, we found that family members were the most commonly alleged perpetrators of financial abuse. In fact, across all abuse types, with the exception of sexual abuse and self-neglect, abuse by a family member was the most commonly reported.”
Elder abuse is estimated to affect one in 10 older American adults per year, but unfortunately many instances of abuse end up not being reported, meaning that far more may be suffering from abuse than estimated.
This was the first ever study to utilize a resource like the NCEA support hotline, and researchers say their findings emphasize the need for more robust elder abuse support services in general. The authors also noted that many callers to the hotline weren’t even sure if what they were reporting fell under the term “elder abuse,” a clear sign that better education and more awareness of the problem is necessary.
“The results highlight the importance of developing effective strategies to prevent future abuse,” Weissberger says. “Our next step is to conduct more studies targeting high-risk individuals and to better understand additional risk factors.”
The study is published in the Journal of Applied Gerontology.