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People Are Ripping Off LA Seniors At Alarming Rates -- And It's Making Them Sick

Reports of all types of elder abuse are on the rise in California. Financial abuse is the most common. (Ari Saperstein/LAist)
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Seniors, and the people who take care of them, need to be aware of their vulnerability to financial scammers. Elder financial abuse is rising steeply with 10,750 confirmed cases in California last year, according to Adult Protective Services.

That's a 176% increase since 2006.

And these ripoffs hurt more than pocketbooks. Experts say all types of elder abuse -- even financial abuse alone -- can increase the risk of hospitalization and death.

"What people are surprised by is all of these things that happened to their both emotional and physical health once they become victimized," said Kelli Morris, director of Orange County's Senior Protection Program and coordinator of the Financial Abuse Specialist Team.

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Elder financial abuse can take the form of a scam over the phone, someone impersonating a grandchild in trouble or a family member taking liberties with an older adult's bank accounts.

Research has found a senior who has been abused is more likely to report body pain or go to the hospital than an elderly individual who's never been abused. Even after accounting for existing medical conditions, older adults who've been abused are three times more likely to die prematurely.

"We looked at the impact of financial exploitation and found that people who had reported an experience of financial exploitation tended to also report higher symptoms of depression and more symptoms of anxiety, and also poor sleep," said Duke Han, director of Neuropsychology at USC's Keck School of Medicine.

Dr. Bonnie Olsen sees it in her practice as a clinical psychologist and elder abuse specialist at Keck. She said her patients who have experienced financial abuse report feeling diminished and inadequate.

"They often talk about feeling a sense of guilt, as if they should have known better - to be able to protect themselves," said Olsen.


Even after the abuse is over, many people still feel its effects.

Bob was able to recoup most of the $20,000 he lost in a phone scam. His case was one of 1,231 confirmed cases of elder abuse in Orange County in 2018.

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He asked us to use only his first name, because he felt too embarrassed to tell his friends what had happened.

"My independence and self sufficiency have been hammered. I no longer trust people as before," Bob wrote in a letter more than a year after being ripped off.

He's still having nightmares.

Having a close social network of friends and family is helping him to recover, Bob said.

That's a good strategy that many don't employ.

"One of the first things we see that happens is that someone who's been mistreated, pulls away," said Olsen.

There were 1,231 confirmed cases of elder abuse in Orange County in 2018. (Michelle Faust Raghavan/LAist)


Elder financial abuse is outpacing other types of abuse. In L.A. County in 2018, there were nearly twice as many confirmed cases of financial abuse as there were of physical abuse.

Orange County, where the senior population is growing faster than in many parts of the state, saw the number of financial abuse cases quadruple between 2006 and 2018. Over the same time period, cases doubled in L.A. and Riverside Counties. San Bernardino saw 169% growth.

These are only the cases that have been confirmed in Southern California. Experts believe most elder financial abuse is going unreported.


Anyone can be scammed or robbed. Researchers are finding many elders are more vulnerable to financial abuse and scams.

The people responsible for taking financial advantage of seniors are often friends or relatives. Older adults are most vulnerable if they're suffering from underlying health problems, like a cognitive impairment.

And elder financial abuse often happens alongside other types of abuse.

"When we see one type of abuse, we really do look for others because it often comes in combinations," said Olsen. "They might also mistreat them emotionally ... berate them, or make them feel guilty or even threaten them."


"I think what makes this difficult in old age is that an older adult has less of an ability to recoup from financial losses," said Keck's Dr. Han.

"It's not like they have a whole other lifetime to accumulate savings," he said.

In the most extreme cases, losing money means you simply can't pay for the things you need to keep you healthy.

"Those who lose their life-savings might cut back on their medications or food ... further hurting their health," said Olsen.

One in 10 financially exploited older adults will have to get taxpayer-funded health programs to pay for their medical expenses, according to the National Adult Protective Services Association.


Experts agree the best thing you can do to prevent elder financial abuse is to learn how to detect it and to keep strong relationships with the older adults in your life.

This reporting was supported by the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism.