Combat financial exploitation of our seniors

By: Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa


May, Older Americans Month, is a time to celebrate the accomplishments and contributions of America’s older citizens.

It should also be a platform to highlight serious issues this generation faces. One of those issues is financial exploitation. It’s a growing problem.

A federal report released in April found that older Americans lost more than $6 billion to theft and fraud between 2013 and 2017, with one in five seniors saying they’ve been a victim of some form of financial abuse.

Those ages of 70 to 79 were impacted the most, with an average loss of more than $45,000, the reported data suggests. Worse, the average loss increased to approximately $50,000 when the theft was committed by someone familiar to the victim.

Iowa is home to more than 500,000 older Americans and ranks 16th among the states in percentage of population aged 65 or older. Over 150,000 of these Iowans suffer from a disability, such as hearing loss, cognitive challenges and difficulty living independently. These factors, sadly, have become targets for fraudsters.

According to the National Council on Aging, reported cases of elder financial abuse reached 25,000 last year, but advocates suspect the number of unreported cases is far higher.

Congress has taken steps to help prevent fraud and assist victims.

In 2017, Congress passed and President Trump signed into law the Elder Abuse Prevention and Prosecution Act, a measure that I sponsored and shepherded through the Senate as the former Judiciary Committee chairman.

The law equips law enforcement with additional tools to combat crimes against older Americans. It also ensures that more data is collected to inform the federal government’s response to all forms of elder abuse and exploitation. It enhances training for federal investigators and prosecutors and requires that each judicial district has at least one prosecutor in charge of elder abuse cases.

The Elder Abuse Prevention and Prosecution Act also ensured that each of the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection have an elder justice coordinator. That gives victims a visible point of contact in the federal government.

Further, the law enhanced penalties for defrauding seniors.

Congress also passed the Senior Safe Act of 2018, which the president signed. It protects financial services professionals from being sued over privacy and other violations for reporting to law enforcement suspected elder financial abuse.

It also encourages banks, credit unions, insurance companies and other financial professionals to provide training for employees by giving them legal protections in return.

I’ve long been an advocate for the protection of seniors. Specific to the financial exploitation of seniors, as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, I conducted a congressional hearing to examine the various cases of fraud and scams that can wipe out a victim’s life savings. I also called upon the Justice Department’s Elder Justice Initiative for a full accounting about its steps to shut down financial exploitation schemes targeting seniors.

I’ll continue my oversight efforts as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

Congress plays an important role in preventing the financial abuse of older Americans, but there are ways loved ones and community members can also help. Often, there are signs that abuse is happening, such as uncharacteristic cash withdrawals, nervousness or anxiety or sudden changes to financial documents like powers of attorney, beneficiaries or wills.

Older loved ones may also show lack of knowledge about their finances or suddenly appear with new and unknown friends or family members. These are all red flags. Knowing the signs and looking into situations that seem strange can help save an older American at risk.

Older Americans contribute so much to our communities and to the nation. They shouldn’t have to worry about falling victim to financial abuse that can leave them without their retirement nest eggs they worked their entire lives to build.

As we celebrate Older Americans Month, we should also be cognizant of the challenges facing our seniors and do what we can to protect them against theft, fraud and abuse.