[The following article was written by my colleague, Attorney Elizabeth White, of Marshall, Parker and Weber]
We often hear stories in the news about the elderly being financially abused by unrelated parties. We read about the phone calls from fake technical support companies, people calling pretending to be the IRS, and e-mails from imposters pretending to be grandchildren in trouble. But, we cannot forget that elder abuse is occurring everyday by those that the elderly know well, such as their friends or relatives.
This past weekend, I witnessed firsthand what I would categorize as financial elder abuse, and the scary part is that I didn’t even realize it as it was happening.
I was with my husband at the grocery store, doing our weekly shopping trip. I noticed a young woman, who was in her mid-twenties, shopping with an elderly woman. My attention was drawn to the younger woman, as she was loudly demanding that the older woman buy her a certain type of ice cream in the frozen food section. I overheard the twenty something refer to the senior as her grandmother as they sought out the granddaughter’s favorite frozen treat. I didn’t think much of this interaction. It was just a grandmother shopping with her granddaughter.
Later in our shopping trip we ended up behind this same grandmother/granddaughter duo in the checkout line. The cashier was ringing up the items that the grandmother and granddaughter had placed on the conveyor belt. I placed the plastic divider on the belt and my husband and I loaded our items on the belt, not paying much attention to the items of the grandmother/granddaughter ahead of us. (I try not to be nosy as to what other people are buying. Although I was interested in knowing what this amazing ice cream product was that the granddaughter wanted.)
After a few minor questions about the credit card payment machine, the grandmother paid for their groceries and the cashier handed her the receipt. The total came to almost $90.00. The grandmother stared at the receipt in confusion. “How much was the chicken?” she asked. The cashier kindly reviewed the price on the receipt. “Well, what about the ice cream?” the grandmother asked. Again, the cashier reviewed the price of that item. “What is this “pre-paid Visa card” on here?!” the grandmother suddenly exclaimed. The cashier explained that it was the prepaid Visa card for $50.00 that had been on the belt with her groceries. “I didn’t want that. I didn’t put that on there!” the grandmother explained.
Then, suddenly, a response came from behind the bagging area, where the granddaughter stood. “Oh, Grandma, I put that on there. I need it.” Grandma was visibly upset, as she responded “I did not say you could get that. You just put that Visa pre-paid card on there without asking.” The granddaughter did not respond further, and did not seem to care about her grandmother’s trembling and distressed disposition.
The grandmother asked that the cashier to remove this unwanted purchase that her granddaughter had “snuck” on. Unfortunately, he was unable to do so at the checkout line, but let her know that she could go to customer service to have the pre-paid card returned and her money refunded.
My husband and I proceeded with our check-out, and as we left, I noticed the grandmother in line at the customer service area, no granddaughter in sight.
While a $50.00 pre-paid gift card may seem “innocent” compared to the larger scams we hear about that affect seniors, these types of financial transactions can add up. Admittedly, I am not aware of the family situation of the granddaughter and granddaughter. But, I am certain that someone in her twenties is old enough to know what they are doing and I would put this in a completely different category than the toddler sneaking a bag of cookies onto the belt.
What the granddaughter was doing was taking financial advantage of her grandmother without her permission. It made me wonder how many times these unapproved “gifts” may have happened before.
This small event provided me with a first-hand example of the little things like this happening under our noses all the time. This is the type of financial exploitation that is likely not reported, if it is even discovered.
The bigger question is, what can we do? I think the most important thing to do is to be vigilant, particularly if you are a family member or friend of an older adult. My experience illustrates that if you dig below the surface of a situation, there could be financial exploitation going on that is easily hidden. While seniors are free to give gifts or to donate money, just as a person of any age, these gifts need to be voluntary. And to the young woman that I witnessed in the grocery store, next time please enjoy your time with your grandmother and gratefully accept the ice cream.
For more information on elder abuse see: