Close to home: spotting elder abuse

Richard Roberts, director and co-owner of Gedye & Sons, details the warning signs of financial abuse of the elderly, what practitioners should look out for, and the steps they can take where such abuse is exposed.
An elderly black man looks out of a window in a nursing home.
Photograph: FG Trade

The financial abuse of the elderly is on the rise. Sadly, this has been exacerbated since the COVID-19 pandemic, as it caused more people than ever to rely on the help of others and pushed many to start using the internet for the first time. 

Growing social and economic pressures, increasingly fractured families, and the steady rise of internet shopping and banking are all contributing to increasing financial abuse.

Anyone can be at risk, but age, disability, cognitive impairment and poor mental health may make a person vulnerable – temporarily or permanently.

Furthermore, a 2015 survey by KPMG indicated an explosion of cases in which the perpetrator of the fraud was a family member. Many of our clients are likely to be cared for with unswerving integrity by devoted family members. However, this is not always the case. 

Fraud against the elderly and vulnerable happens more often than we might like to think, and we must act to expose it.

In this article, we will explore a number of factors that practitioners ought to consider when advising not only the vulnerable client, but also the executors of an estate when they look back through the management of the deceased’s finances prior to death. 

The focus will be on family members, but much of this advice will also apply to professional carers and the ever-helpful neighbour.  

Why are the elderly attractive targets?

The over 65s own £2.6 trillion worth of net housing wealth in addition to significant savings and investments, according to Savills. 

Older people are more likely to be vulnerable or have disabilities that make them dependent on others. Some helpers may also have access to the homes and assets of these elderly people – including being able to remotely access their online banking and shopping apps. 

Sadly, victims of such abuse are often reluctant to take action against their abusers because they feel ashamed of having been taken advantage of, or because they do not want the criminal to withdraw their care and support.

What is financial abuse?

Financial abuse spans a broad spectrum of conduct. It could be someone overcharging on a purchase, stealing from a wallet, or fraudulently inheriting an entire estate. Increasingly, it can also include controlling someone’s internet identity.

Let’s explore some common examples.

1. Overt or covert taking of money or property

This category includes both straightforward theft and the improper use of money or assets. It could also involve over-claiming of benefits by overstating the severity of the situation.

The examples are legion, but let me give some real-life cases:

  • the son who will go home to see his mother (and support his local football team at home matches) but charges her £400 for the petrol for a 200-mile round trip. His mother, who either knows no better and/or fears abandonment, just pays 
  • the ‘stay-close-to-home’ daughter who sees her siblings all living better, more fulfilling lives far from her and their aged parents, who she struggles to look after. She helps herself to their money here and there by using their ATM card, only to find out after their deaths she has taken over £50,000. Her siblings discover this and report her theft to the police
  • the privately-arranged carer who feels she should have had a pay rise years ago and just adds a pound or two to the shopping bill each week, or pockets the extra odd bit of food because the elderly person “won’t eat it anyway”
  • the relative who keeps the vulnerable person to a limited number of rooms in their home and gradually sells off the contents of the other rooms and pockets the proceeds of sale

2. Overcharging for services or persuading someone to accept lower cost/lower value services

In this category, the most common example I see is persuading the vulnerable person to accept the smaller, cheaper back room without a sea view in the residential home, to try and save on fees and increase the inheritance. 

Another example I see a lot is the relative who does the shopping buys the cheapest food and drink and charges the elderly person for the most expensive, and pockets the difference. 

Pay attention even to small things like the relative who waters down the sherry, because that may just be an indicator, or just the start, of more serious abuse.

3. Forging an older person’s signature

As a person becomes more vulnerable and loses confidence, often their signature will wither away and may become easier to forge, thus providing an opportunity for greater financial abuse. 

The vulnerable person may not always then recall which cheques they have signed and which they have not.

4. Creating and then controlling a vulnerable person’s internet identity 

After initially and legitimately setting up a vulnerable person with an internet presence – including creating the initial passwords, be it for banking or shopping – the perpetrator then progressively assumes managing those accounts.

This is often done on the pretext that it’s easier and it stops the vulnerable person worrying about how to deal with passwords. And it doesn’t just apply to financial dealings.

For instance, recently I have received emailed instructions for significant changes to a client’s will apparently written by them, and from an email account bearing their name. That immediately prompts me to make significant investigations before even considering drafting a new will containing those changes.

5. Using a person’s property or possessions without their permission or knowledge

Examples in this category can be as simple as borrowing the vulnerable person’s car, but it can be as complex as letting the home of the elderly relative when they stay with the perpetrator and failing to account for the rent.

6. Getting someone to sign a document through deception, coercion or undue influence

We are all familiar with the precautions we take when we get a will signed or when a house is the subject of a gift.

However, there can be equally important transactions we are never called upon to investigate, such as the transfer of a car or shares. These may require investigation post-death.

7. Promising life-long care in exchange for money or property and then not fulfilling the promise 

The obvious examples are where a family builds an extension to their home to accommodate the elder person, and then the family, having added value to their house, gradually reduces their care or involvement.

8. Confidence tricks or scams

This used to be the province of tradesmen who overcharged, but increasingly, we are seeing different types of predatory individuals who seek out vulnerable seniors with the intention of exploiting them.

A good example of this are the so-called ‘sweetheart’ or ‘romance’ scams. With a greater number of elderly people using the internet, these crimes are on the rise.

The grooming of a vulnerable person is not just restricted to child cases, so be mindful of this when a client mentions they have met someone on an over-55s internet dating site.

I have seen people part with a substantial part of their life savings because they trusted the nice, lonely man on the internet. 

9. Misuse of powers of attorney (PoA)

We are all familiar with blatant abuse of a power of attorney (PoA), but what of the abuse in which the attorney temporarily – and maybe ‘innocently’ – intermingles the donors’ assets with his, and so offsets his personal overdraft interest or props up an ailing business overdraft to assist short term cash flow?  

We should also be aware of ‘convenient’ property deals, such as selling the house to a ‘builder mate’ without exploring development opportunities.

Who are the perpetrators?

Almost anyone can perpetrate financial abuse of the elderly, including very close family members such as spouses, children or grandchildren, carers and those in a position of trust and responsibility. 

Often, the perpetrator has some misplaced moral justification for taking what they believe is rightfully ‘theirs’. They may fear that the older family member will get sick and use up their inheritance, or due increasing longevity, they may be simply frustrated by having to wait longer than anticipated for ‘their’ money. 

A lack of financial stability in the sub-50 year old age group, or stepchildren wanting to right the ‘wrongs’ of a divorce settlement can often be a significant motivation for financial abuse.

Sometimes, perpetrators will have an addiction they need to finance. They may have financial problems arising from their own or their business’s mismanagement. Alternatively, they may simply have heavy financial demands – young adults still at home draining a limited income pool, for instance. 

It might be that the perpetrator has negative feelings towards the vulnerable person or to other siblings or family members who they want to prevent from acquiring or inheriting the older person’s assets.

We should remain vigilant in examining the dealings of vulnerable adults. While everyone is innocent until proven otherwise, we must not fail to protect the vulnerable by making reasonable enquiries.

What are the warning signs? 

There are a range of indicators of financial abuse that practitioners should look out for, and while some are more obvious than others, all can be indicative of something sinister. 

The main red flag is change; elderly people often have predicable spending and income patterns, and routinely have the same individuals helping them. 

Although many elderly people do have an internet presence, any former reluctance to use it for financial dealings was in many cases swept away during the pandemic. Any change should invite vigilance on the part of the practitioner.

Obvious indicators 

  • withdrawals from bank accounts or significant transfers between accounts that the victim cannot readily explain

  • a change in the amount of cash being withdrawn each week when the victim’s spending habits are modest, and/or have not changed for many years

  • sudden/significant change to online banking/shopping where previously there was none

  • inclusion of additional names on bank accounts or benefit payments

  • appearance of previously uninvolved relatives or ‘close friends’

  • an increase in the amount of, or need for, cash in the house

  • additional or unexplained credit cards

  • unpaid bills

  • the carer/helper having sudden unexplained assets/wealth – a new car, for instance

Subtle indicators

  • increasing reluctance to talk openly about family or friends

  • increasing isolation or avoidance of once usual social contact

  • increasing reluctance to spend money, for example, to heat their home or to buy food

  • increasing timidity, nervousness or lack of self-confidence

What should practitioners do?

It goes without saying that practitioners should always act sensitively when they have suspicions that financial abuse may be taking place. Broaching the topic is easier when you have had a relation with the client for many years. 

Always bear in mind that the client’s affairs are confidential. Nevertheless, there are various courses of action available, depending on the issues at hand:

  • we may want to think about the extent of the alleged abuse, and if claims of abuse are brought to us by others, we ought to consider the credibility and motivations of the individual making those claims

  • we can contact the police, Adult Social Care, or Office for the Public Guardian

  • we may want to consider asking the local authority to place the vulnerable adult into safekeeping

  • we can notify any professional body to which the suspected perpetrator belongs. If you suspect abuse or neglect (potential or actual) by another legal professional, you should contact the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) for guidance before you contact the head of risk and compliance at the practice concerned

  • we may want to consider an application to the Court of Protection for the revocation of an LPA or registered EPA, or the suspension, discharge or replacement or variation of Deputyship

  • above all, we should consider if our actions may tip off the perpetrator and so cause more distress to the vulnerable person


Views expressed in our blogs are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Law Society.

Read our practice notes on Financial abuse, Making gifts of assets, and Lasting powers of attorney (sign in to My LS required - free).

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