At the July 2015 White House Conference on Aging, President Barack Obama announced plans to train more prosecutors to combat elder abuse, including financial exploitation. The program is to be backed by the Department of Justice. That initiative—and possibly the first known utterance of the phrase “elder abuse” by a U.S. president—were viewed by some as evidence that the exploitation of older Americans is finally becoming part of the public discourse. But a problem with so many dimensions needs to be addressed on multiple levels.

 

All Telecom Companies Should Offer Call-­Blocking Technologies

The systems would enable their customers to help stop robocalls that often generate scams. (Certain companies already offer call-blocking services for some Voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP, services and landlines.) Recently, attorneys general in 44 states and the District of Columbia asked five major companies—AT&T, CenturyLink, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon—to offer the service. Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, has actively campaigned for the measure; more than 450,000 consumers have signed Consumers Union’s End Robocalls petition to the top phone companies to provide those tools to consumers at no charge. (Read more of our recent coverage of robocalls.)

 

States Could Pass New, Targeted Civil Statutes

In all states, victims can sue known con artists in civil court for fraud, misappropriation, breach of fiduciary duty, and other causes of action. But a senior fleeced of $20,000 by his accountant might not find a lawyer willing to file a suit over such a relatively small sum, says Jane Lee, director of the Financial Crime Resource Center at the National Center for Victims of Crime. But in the five states with elder-financial-exploitation civil laws—Arizona, California, Florida, Hawaii, and Oregon—victims who sue can recover attorney fees and get treble damages, among other benefits. If that innovation were copied nationwide, more victims might seek justice in both civil and criminal courts, Lee says.

 

More Physicians Could Be Trained to Spot the Warning Signs of Abuse

That evaluation could become part of regular medical checkups. As with suspected child abuse, doctors should know where to report their concerns. (Currently, medical professionals who routinely work with the elderly are being trained in that skill through Baylor College of Medicine’s Elder Investment Fraud and Financial Exploitation Prevention Program.)

 

More Elder-Abuse Task Forces Should Be Established

The entities, composed of local and federal law-enforcement officers, prosecutors, financial institutions, adult protective services, and others involved in elder protection, would enable professionals in a community to share information more quickly, aiding in investigations and prosecutions. Page Ulrey, senior deputy prosecuting attorney for the King County, Wash., prosecuting attorney’s office, suggests that every state or county attorney’s office should have a dedicated elder-abuse prosecutor. “We’re so far behind in how we’re approaching this problem,” she says. “We’re not thinking of it as the paramount and pressing issue that it is.”

 

Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the November 2015 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.