Efforts take aim at rising toll of elderly fraud in Utah, U.S.
Abuse • White House event, local programs put spotlight on staggering losses, prevention.
Published: June 15, 2012 11:15PM
Updated: June 15, 2012 06:49PM

So far, Utah is the only state that has attempted to measure how much its elderly residents lose every year to financial abuse, according to the Utah Division of Aging and Adult Services.

And the picture isn’t pretty.

A study released last year by Jilenne Gunther, legal counsel for the agency, estimated that elderly Utahns combined lose up to $1 million a day to financial abuse, with the perpetrators often the people seniors rely on most — their children and grandchildren.

“At some point most people are going to need help with their finances,” Gunther said. “And it is extremely important that the elderly and those who love them take steps to put checks and balances in place to protect their assets.”

Gunther was on hand at the White House on Thursday when President Barack Obama signed a proclamation making Friday World Elder Abuse Awareness Day.

In the proclamation, Obama noted that elder abuse — whether physical, emotional or financial — takes an unacceptable toll on individuals and families across the nation.

“Seniors who experience abuse or neglect face a heightened risk of health complications and premature death, while financial exploitation can rob men and women of the security they have built over a lifetime,” the proclamation stated.

Gunther believes that financial theft represents one of the most prevalent types of elder abuse in Utah. And when it occurs it often can be traced back to the person who was chosen to help the senior pay monthly bills and handle other areas of their personal finances.

She suggested that one way to protect against that potential vulnerability is for the elderly to name a “third party monitor,” a person who is given the ability to watch over bank accounts without actually having access to them.

Tracey Larson, product development manager for the Bank of American Fork, said the financial institution has worked with Gunther to develop several products that families can use to protect their elderly loved ones.

One such product allows a designated family member or other trusted person to view their loved one’s accounts online and around the clock.

“They don’t have actual access to the account nor can they call us if they spot something suspicious, because they are not our customer,” Larson said. “But if they do see something unusual or suspicious they will be in a position to step in [by alerting authorities or the loved one] and help.”

Larson also suggested that if an elderly family member has an account that holds most of their assets — their nest egg — that they consider setting up a second smaller account out of which their monthly bills get paid.

“A bank will be able to transfer the money needed to pay those bills into that smaller account every month,” she said, adding that there is a lot less risk because the nest egg account will remain out of reach.

Gunther said many businesses operate along those same lines.

“Businesses often have someone watching over the person who actually writes out the checks and pays the bills,” she said. “And we need to think about putting those types of checks and balances in place for our greatest generation.”

steve@sltrib.com

Twitter: @OberbeckBiz

Tips for safeguarding the elderly’s money

Set up a third-party monitor • Ask a family member, CPA or friend to monitor accounts with extra statements or online access.

Limit access • If the senior has a nest egg, add the helper/agent to a second smaller account out of which bills can be paid. Keep the helper/agent’s name off the nest egg account.

Limited power of attorney • Use a limited power attorney agreement to assist with the smaller account only.

Free book of advice • For a copy of “Navigating Your Rights: The Utah Legal Guide for Those 55 and Over,” go to http://legalguide55.utah.gov

Source: Bank of American Fork, Utah Division of Aging and Adult Services