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Financial exploitation of elders on the rise in Tennessee

By Veronica Burniston
Freelance Writer

Over the last five years, elderly and vulnerable adults have been increasingly targeted for financial exploitation. Recently in Johnson County, a Social Security scam has circulated through phone calls and misleading messages. The caller claims the receiver’s social security number is “frozen due to illegal action pending.” He or she then proceeds to ask more questions about the receiver’s personal information.

“Financial exploitation” is the misuse or unauthorized use of an elderly or vulnerable individual’s property, financial assets, or funds for the benefit of oneself or that of a third party. The exploiter is often a family member, caregiver, acquaintance, or business. Within the Tennessee Department of Human Services, the Adult Protective Services (APS) maintains, studies, and files the statewide complaints of elder abuse. 

From 2015 to 2019, APS confirmed that elder financial exploitation reports increased by 87 percent.  Financial exploitation can occur with or without the victim’s knowledge. Sometimes family or trusted individuals gain access to financial accounts or property and use it to their benefit. Third-party exploitation often appears through phone calls, e-mails, or internet pop-ups. Some examples include IRS scams, Lottery, and Romance scams, Tech Support, and Social Security scams. 

According to a 2019 report by FBI Internet Crimes Complaint Center (IC3), “Tennesseans over the age of 60 filed over 1,199 internet crime related complaints,” which totaled a loss of $14,035,513. Elders and their families need to be aware of this growing problem. As it currently stands, very little protection exists for victims of financial exploitation. Although APS works to aid victims and manage complaints, it is restricted from investigating cases beyond caregivers exploiting the elderly or improper use of government funds. All other complaints are passed to local law enforcement and district attorney generals. 

Due to the information moving between state and local agencies, it is impossible to track the current system’s progress, resolution, or conflicts. Therefore, the individual and his family must be vigilant against such crimes. 

Here are a few helpful tips to avoid financial scams:

1. Be suspicious of calls, e-mails, or internet pop-ups requesting personal information. Encourage elders to contact family or trusted individuals before responding to suspicious inquiries. 

2. Speak regularly with the caregiver. Develop an accountability relationship with him or her.

3. Be watchful for suspicious financial behavior or uncharacteristic spending in the elder’s bank accounts. 

4. Watch for sudden “new friends” or family members who seem overly interested in or encourage poor use of financial assets or property. 

To report cases of financial exploitation of elderly or vulnerable adults, contact APS at (888) 277-8366 or online at https://reportadultabuse.dhs.tn.gov. Illegal exploitation of elders can also be reported directly to local law enforcement or the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. To contact the Bureau in Johnson City, Tennessee, call 434-6424.