Today is World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, launched 10 years ago by the International Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse and the United Nations. It's purpose: To remind the world of the need to protect every senior citizen from physical, emotional, financial and, even sexual abuse.

According to the National Center on Elder Abuse, based in Alhambra, Calif., one in 10 Americans age 60 and older experience some form of abuse over the course of a year. One in two adults with dementia have been victimized.

“Older people are vital, contributing members of our society,” noted Kathy Greenlee, assistant secretary for aging and administrator of the Administration for Community Living. “The abuse or neglect of any one of them diminishes us all.”

Financial elder abuse, in which a senior citizen is coerced, bullied, or tricked into relinquishing hard-earned assets, is the most common form of elder abuse and the fastest growing. Yet by one estimate only 1 in 44 victims report the crime.

Most of the abuse is committed by family members or people the senior knows. Scams by strangers, though less common, often happen more quickly and can result in bigger financial losses. A conservative estimate of annual losses is $3 billion, according to study published in 2011 by the MetLife Mature Market Institute.

Progress Catching Crooks

It seems that recent international efforts to identify and prosecute the criminals who prey on senior citizens are beginning to pay off. 

  • Mail fraud from the Netherlands. Earlier this month, the Justice Department filed a civil complaint in U.S. District Court in New York against an individual and two companies in the Netherlands that were allegedly engaged in multiple international mail fraud schemes aimed at senior citizens and other vulnerable U.S. victims.

    According to the complaint, the criminals sent direct mail solicitations that falsely claimed the recipients had won cash, valuable prizes, or would receive large sums of money. The victims were told that they first had to send some money in order to get their prizes. But after they did, the prizes never arrived. The Justice Department, which sought an injunction to shut down the fraudulent operations, alleged that U.S. citizens were mailing the schemers $18 million a year. Dutch authorities participated in the enforcement action.
  • Prizes promised. Also this month, Jamaican national Paul Laing admitted to defrauding a number of elderly U.S. victims. He received hundreds of thousands of dollars from his prey, in some cases wiping out their life savings, the Justice Department reported. None ever received their promised winnings. The admission came when Laing was sentenced to 10 years in U.S. federal prison for conspiracy to launder monetary instruments, in connection with his leadership role in a wide-reaching Jamaican lottery scam. 
  • Grandparent scam from Canada. In May, the authorities in the Montreal area arrested 23 people involved in the so-called grandparent scam, according to the Montreal Gazette. In this ruse, a senior citizen is contacted by strangers and urged to send money right away to help a relative in trouble. The scheme was worth $2.5 million.

Julie Schoen, deputy director of the National Center on Elder Abuse at the University of California, Alhambra, says prosecutions like those are the result of an ongoing effort by elder-justice advocates to sensitize workers in numerous professions to the signs of elder abuse.

For example, an increasing number of financial institutions are training tellers to take note when an elderly customer appears stressed, or begins making large withdrawals, which could indicate the senior is being defrauded. "Banks are becoming more aware of their responsibility and the role they play in this," Schoen says. 

But there’s still a long way to go in stopping fraud against senior citizens. 

How to Protect Seniors

Here are five ways consumers can help ensure the safety of the elderly:

• Regularly call or visit. Be suspicious if a senior citizen has a new “best friend,” becomes socially isolated, never seems to be available or able to come to the phone, or is hesitant to have contact with others unless a caregiver is present. This could indicate that someone has undue influence on the senior’s behavior and decision-making.
• Provide respite for a caregiver. Caregivers who are stressed financially and emotionally can sometimes steal the assets of those they are supposed to be caring for. Monitor the caregiver and ensure that person gets enough rest.
• Set up safeguards at the bank. If you’re concerned about your relative’s financial decision-making, set up a small account at a local bank for her. That account could, for instance, include a debit card and checking with a spending limit of, say, $300. That way, any other finances can be saved in a separate, more secure account.
• Arrange for limited account oversight. Ask financial institutions to send statements and alerts to a trusted person who has no direct access to the senior's accounts, so that person can check for fraud. Another option is to try EverSafe, a web-based service that consolidates all of a senior’s accounts and checks daily for suspicious activity. We found one of its services, called EverSafe Essentials generally worked as promised. It costs $7.49 per month for one person.
• Block solicitations. Opt out of commercial mail solicitations. You can arrange for a ban of five years at a time with the Direct Marketing Association’s mail preference service. To eliminate unsolicited offers for credit, go to optoutprescreen.com. To eliminate robocalls, try a call-blocking device or Nomorobo, a free service that’s available through some landline providers. We found it to be quite effective