Fighting Financial Exploitation of the Elderly Through Guardianship

Post Authored by Jesse Footlik

Part 1 of a Series

It is estimated that over six (6) million seniors fall victim to scams and fraudulent schemes every year.  In fact, it is quite likely you know someone who has been such a victim, or that a person has attempted to scam them.  Based on statistics from the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging, our elder population loses an astounding $2.9 billion a year as a result of such financial exploitations.  Notably, other sources have claimed these figures to be much higher on an annual basis. While all members of our population are targets–we’ve all received those “IRS” phone calls–our seniors are our most vulnerable and susceptible.  Frankly, many seniors are sitting ducks.  Sometimes, our seniors are able to fend off the exploiter. Other times–often when dementia, Alzheimer’s disease or other cognitive impairments have set in–they cannot, and retirement savings and family fortunes are lost forever.

Combating financial exploitation of the elderly is no easy task.  It is difficult enough to identify the strangers who exploit their victims through the mail or electronically, but it is more challenging when the exploiter is known to the victim–people who you would least expect and who can cover their tracks easily.  Unfortunately, far too many seniors are targeted by relatives or other people they trust, including caregivers, bankers, clergy, neighbors and even friends.  The scams are ever-changing, especially with major increases in social media use by seniors.  Social websites, networking websites, dating websites, and the like serve as prime real estate for exploiters looking to lure, engage and swindle.

Aside from the common “IRS” phone call, the most popular scams, according to True Link Financial, include:

  • Obituary scams – Using obituaries to target recent widows, scammers attempt to collect false debts of the deceased. Other forms of funeral-related scams are also prevalent.
  • Grandparent scams – A scammer calls late at night pretending to be a grandchild in need of emergency funds. Various forms of this type exist, such as a grandchild who needs to be bailed out of jail.
  • Magazine or Subscription Service scams – A “company” sends free magazines or other items and convinces a senior he or she owes money for the subscription.
  • Sweepstakes – Fake “contests” where the victim must send information to claim their “prize.”
  • Charitable Donations – “Charities” take advantage of generosity and memory loss to request money.
  • Investment Scam – A salesperson convinces a senior that an unusual asset, like a horse farm, is worth a significant investment.

When the senior suffers from diminished capacity and lacks a substitute decision-maker such as an agent under a Power of Attorney–or the agent is actually the exploiter–guardianship court provides an outlet for families, friends and sometimes total strangers to “stop the bleeding” and put various safeguards in place.  The elderly victim can be isolated from the exploiter, and a new decision-maker, known as the guardian of the estate and/or guardian of the person, can make financial and/or personal decisions in the best interests of the ward.  Having the guardianship court’s oversight, and its approval, for example, over a request to temporarily freeze assets or to minimize access to jeopardized accounts, is effective in preventing further abuse.  When the circumstances call for urgent action due to the risk and harm posed to the alleged person with a disability, Temporary Guardianship can be a very important and useful form of guardianship.

We will explore Temporary Guardianship and related issues in the next part of this series. For reference, the Illinois Temporary Guardianship statute is found in 755 ILCS 5/11a-4.

About the Author:

Jesse FootlikJesse Footlik is a partner with the law firm of Peck Ritchey, LLC.  He concentrates his practice in the areas of trust, estate, and guardianship litigation and administration, with an emphasis on contested trusts and estates. He has extensive experience representing heirs, beneficiaries and fiduciaries (both individual and corporate). You can often find him on the 18th floor of the Daley Center in Cook County, litigating contested decedent’s estates and guardianship proceedings. He strives to be very active in the legal community and frequently lecture on various elder law topics. Prior to law school at Chicago-Kent College of Law, he graduated from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. 

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