Public Interest Law Initiative

Guest Post: Stopping Adult Financial Exploitation (S.A.F.E.)

Posted on: April 17, 2019

This is a guest post from PILI Alum Elise Robie, Staff Attorney at the Center for Disability and Elder Law (CDEL), where she coordinates the Stopping Adult Financial Exploitation (S.A.F.E.) Program for the CDEL. S.A.F.E. provides advocacy, representation, community outreach for adults experiencing financial exploitation and educational programming to representatives to prevent and protect clients against future abuse. 

“I don’t know if Jane has done anything – I don’t want to accuse her without being 100%,”[1] Mrs. Jackson told me as I completed her intake. At 79-years old, she was a recent widow and lived alone in the basement of her two-flat. She was a wheel-chair user who also demonstrated concerning cognitive decline. The only people who came to see her were her part-time home health care worker and a few relatives.

After months of not receiving her pension check in the mail, Mrs. Jackson contacted the police. Her wallet and I.D. were also missing. Collection notices were piling up. She hadn’t paid the electricity, gas, and telephone companies in quite some time. More importantly, she was at risk of losing her home in the upcoming tax sale.

The referral to the Center for Disability and Elder Law (CDEL) came from Officer Carlos. Officer Carlos is a Senior Services Police Officer, and one of his duties is to facilitate law-enforcement services for local seniors. He expressed great concern over Mrs. Jackson, who was reportedly going to be evicted from her home in two weeks.

CDEL worked with a financial crimes detective and Mrs. Jackson’s pension company to investigate. We determined that her granddaughter, Jane, fraudulently claimed she was Mrs. Jackson’s power of attorney agent and transferred the pension benefits to a money market account that only Jane could access. We had the pension benefits rerouted to Mrs. Jackson’s account, and assisted her in navigating a tax indemnity suit to secure her housing.

Mrs. Jackson did not wish to press charges against Jane, which is common among adults experiencing financial exploitation. In fact, Mrs. Jackson exhibited many common characteristics of an individual at greater risk of such exploitation. Her social isolation and cognitive and physical disabilities hindered her ability to access support groups and increased her dependence on caretakers. She was reliant on others to assist in obtaining her groceries and other necessities. She was trusting and hesitant to act – even when it meant potentially losing everything.

Facts and Figures:

Adult financial exploitation is a significant form of abuse among our aging population. According to a 2011 MetLife Study, adult financial exploitation costs seniors $2.9 Billion annually. Illinois Adult Protective Services (APS) recorded 16,507 reports of abuse, neglect and financial exploitation in Illinois in 2017. Of those reports, over half (8,604 or 52%) were for adult financial exploitation – the highest of all abuse categories.[2] More troubling is the belief that only a fraction of cases are reported. Some sources cite that only 1 in 44 cases of adult financial exploitation are reported. Although the number of unreported cases remains unclear, the number of reports to APS have consistently been on the rise, and adult financial exploitation has statistically remained the most prevalent type of abuse. In fact, a recent report from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) found that exploitation reported to financial institutions has quadrupled from 2013 to 2017. As our population ages, the need for legal, institutional, and policy intervention is clear.

The Law:

The Illinois Adult Protective Services Act defines adult financial exploitation as “the use of an eligible adult’s resources by another to the disadvantage of that adult or the profit or advantage of a person other than that adult.” 320 ILCS 20/2(f-1). Additionally, the Illinois criminal code allows for civil liability for adult financial exploitation when the abuser 1) stands in a position of trust or confidence, and 2) by deception or intimidation, 3) obtains control or illegally uses the property, assets, or resources of the senior or adult with disabilities. 720 ILCS 5/17-56(a). Thus, this statute requires a trusting relationship between victim and abuser.

As a result of this relationship, a staggeringly high number of exploiters are children, spouses, or relatives of victims (74% in 2017 in Illinois).  Therefore, it is essential we understand warning signs and how to prevent and protect our loved ones and clients from experiencing future abuse.

Common Signs:

Adult financial exploitation can occur in a variety of ways; however, there are some characteristic red flags. Common signs include, but are not limited to:

  • Unusual account activity (e.g. ATM withdrawal when senior cannot walk to a bank);
  • Transfers of property or large gifts;
  • Recent acquaintances expressing undying affection;
  • Executing powers of attorney, wills, or trusts without capacity (e.g. after major surgery or a stroke);
  • Forged signatures;
  • Unpaid bills despite adequate funds; and
  • Personal belongings missing.

While this list is not inclusive, it gives attorneys a starting idea of what to look for when assisting new or long-term clients. Delicate inquiry, investigation and request for documentation is often required as many adult financial exploitation cases tend to be multi-layered.

Representation and Prevention:

There are many steps that attorneys can take once a client is already experiencing exploitation. For instance, if an exploitative family member is living with a senior, is not paying rent, and is taking the senior’s social security check, an attorney can assist in filing an eviction, an Order of Protection, and contact the Social Security Administration (SSA) to inform the SSA of fraud, and potentially file suit in court for recovery of the funds.

Further, assisting clients by recommending filing a police report, building a financial record, and referring the file to the State’s Attorney for criminal prosecution may assist clients who have difficulty navigating the legal system.

Of course prevention is the ideal method of addressing exploitation. Recovery of funds lost to exploitation may be futile, so early discovery and counter-action are essential. Estate planning, advance directives and powers of attorney when the adult has capacity is the strongest way to prevent future fraud and abuse.

Adult financial exploitation cases touch a wide variety of case law including, but not limited to: consumer and collection matters; dissolution of marriage; eviction; mortgage and real estate fraud; guardianship; breach of fiduciary duty; breach of contract; misappropriation; identity theft; etc. In knowing where to look, and what remedies are available, attorneys can provide a wide variety of protections to their most vulnerable clients.

For More information:

To learn more about the CDEL Stopping Adult Financial Exploitation (S.A.F.E.) Program or volunteering with the CDEL, visit www.cdelaw.org.

To report abuse, neglect, or exploitation of a senior or adult with disabilities call the Department on Aging’s Adult Protective Services’ 24-Hour Hotline, your Regional Ombudsman’s Office, or the police. Report Scams or consumer fraud to the Federal Trade Commission or the Illinois Attorney General’s Consumer Fraud Division.


[1] All names have been changed for confidentiality.

[2] Other forms of abuse include emotional abuse, passive neglect, physical abuse, willful deprivation, confinement, and sexual abuse. See id.

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