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Jim Flynn Special to the Gazette | Sep 4, 2022

Financial abuse of the elderly — these days more properly called elder financial “exploitation” — has increased as the elderly population has increased. And it continues to be that some people, as they age, become more vulnerable to exploitation due to the ravages of time (and possibly social isolation).

Also, it continues to be the case that people wanting to steal money from an older person have an abundance of tools at their disposal. This includes threats and intimidation; withholding of health care or affection; forged documents; intentional misinformation; unauthorized use of credit and debit cards; and fraudulent substitution of beneficiaries on financial accounts (life insurance policies, retirement plans, wills, trusts, deposit accounts, beneficiary deeds).

No one knows the full extent of losses from elder financial exploitation since much of it goes unreported. That’s because the exploiters are often family members, caregivers or trusted fiduciaries; victims are afraid or embarrassed to report; exploitation is only discovered after the victim dies; and family members don’t want to admit that exploitation has occurred on their watch.

Nonetheless, there seems to be general agreement among experts who study this sort of thing that annual losses from elder financial exploitation are well into the billions of dollars.

The Colorado Legislature has tried to deal with this problem on multiple occasions and on several fronts. Back in 2010, the Legislature enacted a law requiring financial institutions — banks, savings and loans and credit unions — to offer customers who are “at risk” adults the opportunity to sign an information release consent form. This form, when signed, would allow a financial institution to turn over account records to law enforcement and human services agencies if the financial institution suspected its customer was a victim of financial exploitation. (This law originally set 60 as the age at which someone became “at risk.” The at-risk age has now been bumped up to 70.)

Then, in 2013, the Legislature created a law causing individuals involved in health care, law enforcement, fire protection, social work, banking, veterinary medicine, animal control services, government functions and many other professions and occupations to be subject to a mandatory reporting obligation.

If they observe exploitation of an “at-risk elder,” or have reasonable cause to believe an at-risk elder has been financially exploited or is at risk of being financially exploited, they must report the matter to a law enforcement agency within 24 hours. A willful failure to report is a misdemeanor. Once a report is filed, law enforcement and human services agencies are supposed to go into action to investigate and protect the victim.

And, in 2018, the Legislature amended the Colorado criminal code to increase the punishments applicable to elder “mistreatment” of various kinds. This legislation caused elder financial exploitation to become a Class 5 to Class 3 felony, depending on various circumstances and the amount stolen. The legislation also created strict restitution requirements and monetary surcharges. These surcharges go into a state fund intended to further support elder abuse prevention activities.

If you want to know more about elder financial exploitation, and other forms of legally recognized elder mistreatment, a good place to start is the El Paso County office of adult protective services. Its very informative website can be found at https://humanservices.elpasoco.com/adult-protective-services/.

Although a complex network of governmental agencies is now in place to address elder mistreatment issues, family members are still in the best position to prevent or discover elder financial exploitation (unless they are the source of the exploitation).

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