You see it all too often: A caretaker is arrested for stealing funds from a senior under his or her care. What you don’t see as frequently—though I believe it’s a great deal more prevalent—is family financial fraud, primarily targeting seniors. It generally takes the form of identity theft and account takeovers. It often involves close family members, in-laws, and friends, and it can leave seniors virtually destitute.
Sometimes it’s discovered soon enough to recover some funds, but much goes unreported. I’m convinced there is a sizeable problem here: By 2020, nearly one in every six Americans will be 65 or older, and protection of their assets, according to a joint regulators’ report, is a vitally important issue.
Take a scenario we’ve encountered at Vanguard: A woman in her late 70s discovers that a relative has been withdrawing assets from her accounts without her knowledge. (She may have unwittingly opened the door by asking a tech-savvy child or grandchild to set up online access to her accounts. In some cases, family members have everything they need to do this without the account owner ever knowing about it.)
What does the victim do next? Hopefully, she calls us immediately. We’ll talk to her about securing her account and filing a police report. Predictably, many victims are reluctant to charge their loved ones with theft, and they often choose simply to disable online access or set up additional security measures which would block access by others.
There are, of course, perfectly legitimate reasons for relatives to have some access to a senior’s financial resources. (To help the senior pay bills or file tax returns, for example.) But this should never happen without the account owner specifically granting authority—through a formal, affirmative decision—to someone he or she deems trustworthy. This can’t prevent financial abuse, of course, but it puts the parties involved on notice.
If a senior is no longer able to handle his or her own affairs, there is a right way for loved ones to establish account access, assuming such provisions haven’t yet been made. The process begins with a call to the financial institution(s) to get clear direction on what needs to be done.
What you can do
If you’re a senior—or a “future senior”—it’s a good idea to plan ahead for these contingencies while you’re still physically and mentally healthy:
• Understand the types of access you can grant. (For example: power of attorney, which generally provides full access, or limited agent/authority, which generally provides oversight access without withdrawal rights.)
• Know how to reach your assets. Be aware of the ways you can grant or limit access to your accounts by phone, mail, and online.
• Review your account statements regularly. If you have any questions, call and ask for clarification. This is important!
• Know who has access to your assets. Review this periodically, and make changes if appropriate.
The bottom line: Educate yourself, trust those who deserve it, and keep an eye on your money. After all, it’s yours.
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