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Elder Justice: National Strategy Needed to Effectively Combat Elder Financial Exploitation

GAO-13-110 Published: Nov 15, 2012. Publicly Released: Nov 15, 2012.
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What GAO Found

Officials in each of the four states GAO contacted identified the need for more safeguards and public awareness activities to help prevent elder financial exploitation. They also noted that it is difficult to prevent exploitation by individuals such as financial services providers, power of attorney agents, guardians, and paid in-home caregivers. Although states have primary responsibility for combating elder financial exploitation, the federal government could disseminate information on model power of attorney legislation, for example, to help states better safeguard against power of attorney abuse--one type of federal activity authorized under the Older Americans Act of 1965. In addition, experts and state and local officials told GAO that many older adults need more information about what constitutes elder financial exploitation in order to report and avoid it. The seven federal agencies GAO reviewed have undertaken activities to increase public awareness of elder financial exploitation. While some experts observed that a nationwide approach to educating the public is needed, federal public awareness activities are not currently conducted as part of a broader coordinated approach, which GAO believes could help ensure the effective use of federal resources. The Elder Justice Coordinating Council, which held its first meeting in 2012, could be the vehicle for developing and implementing a coordinated national strategy. The Council is composed of officials from federal agencies and is charged with developing national priorities and coordinating federal elder justice activities.

Experts and officials in each state GAO reviewed indicated that difficulty 1) gaining expertise, 2) sustaining collaboration between law enforcement and adult protective services agencies, and 3) obtaining data hinders their response to elder financial exploitation. As with prevention, many federal agencies have individually taken steps to address these challenges that are in line with their own missions. For example, the Department of Justice (Justice) has begun to construct a website that contains training and other materials prosecutors can use to build their expertise in investigating and prosecuting elder abuse, which includes elder financial exploitation. However, there are gaps in federal support in some areas. For example, law enforcement officials in each of the four states GAO reviewed indicated that it is not clear how they should obtain the federal support they need to respond to interstate and international cases. Justice can provide this information, in keeping with its priority to strengthen its relationship with state and local law enforcement. Similarly, the Federal Trade Commission's (FTC) Consumer Sentinel Network database compiles incidents of financial exploitation reported to it by many sources around the country but receives incidents from state government agencies in only 12 states. The database would be of greater use if FTC obtained incidents from more of the states and contained an indicator that the incident involved an older adult.

Why GAO Did This Study

Elder financial exploitation is the illegal or improper use of an older adult's funds or property. It has been described as an epidemic with society-wide repercussions. While combating elder financial exploitation is largely the responsibility of state and local social service, criminal justice, and consumer protection agencies, the federal government has a role to play in this area as well. GAO was asked to review issues related to elder financial exploitation. This report describes the challenges states face in (1) preventing and (2) responding to elder financial exploitation, as well as the actions some federal agencies have taken to help states address these challenges.

To obtain this information, GAO interviewed state and local social service, criminal justice, and consumer protection officials in California, Illinois, New York, and Pennsylvania--states with large elderly populations; officials in seven federal agencies; and various elder abuse experts. GAO also analyzed federal strategic plans and other documents and reviewed relevant research, federal laws and regulations, and state laws.


Federal agencies should develop a written national strategy addressing challenges GAO identified, facilitate case investigation and prosecution, and improve data, among other things. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Department of Health and Human Services supported GAO's recommendations. FTC did not believe it is necessary to examine the feasibility of requiring victim's age in complaints. GAO maintains the importance of its recommendation.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Health and Human Services To coordinate and optimize federal efforts to prevent and respond to elder financial exploitation, the Secretary of Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) should, as chairman of the Elder Justice Coordinating Council, direct the Council to develop a written national strategy for combating this problem. This strategy should include a clear statement of its purpose and goals and indicate the roles and responsibilities particular federal agencies should have in implementing it. The strategy could address, among other things, the need to (1) identify and disseminate promising practices and other information nationwide that can be used by state and local agencies to prevent exploitation, educate the public, and help state and local agencies collaborate, investigate, and prosecute elder financial exploitation; (2) ensure coordination of public awareness activities across federal agencies; and (3) collect and disseminate better data nationwide to inform federal, state, and local decisions regarding prevention of and response to elder financial exploitation.
Closed – Implemented
The Elder Justice Coordinating Council has gathered and assessed recommendations from experts and drafted action plans for each the 9 recommendations they prioritized, including identification of involved agencies, current efforts, and next steps. The recommendations included elements that covered: a) identifying and disseminating Information (e.g., Elder Justice Website, successful practices guide to Elder Abuse Forensic Centers, National Resource Center for the Investigation and Prosecution of Elder Abuse, developing screening tools for use across multiple sectors, development of federal elder justice research agenda emphasizing prevention and interventions, development of training for multiple sectors on preventing and responding to elder abuse, development of new models for oversight of fiduciaries and federal-state collaboration); b) coordination of public awareness activities: development of a strategic, multifaceted public awareness campaign with clear and consistent messaging; and c) better data: development of a national APS system modeled after the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System.
Department of Justice To develop expertise among prosecutors and other criminal justice officials, the Attorney General should establish timeframes for and take the steps necessary to launch the elder justice prosecution website that Justice has begun to construct.
Closed – Implemented
The Department of Justice (Justice) released the Elder Justice Website on September 8, 2014, at Justice designed this website as a resource for elder abuse prosecutors and other criminal justice officials. The site features sections on support for victims and families, researcher resources, practitioner resources, and financial exploitation. The Elder Justice home page includes a tool for users to identify agencies and places to go for help near them.
Department of Justice To facilitate investigation and prosecution of interstate and international elder financial exploitation, the Attorney General should conduct outreach to state and local law enforcement agencies to clarify the process for contacting the federal government regarding these cases and the ways in which the federal government could provide support.
Closed – Implemented
The Department of Justice (Justice) uses its new Elder Justice prosecution website to highlight resources for state and local agencies, such as points of contact both within and outside the Department from which state and local law enforcement agencies could access information and assistance related to elder financial exploitation. For example, on the Elder Justice Website, the "Resources by State" link contains contact information for the closest United States Attorneys' Offices, FBI field offices, and other federal agencies. In addition, in its Practitioner Resources section, the website contains and makes available to state and local agencies materials, information, and training funded or developed by Justice. According to Justice, these website features provide local law enforcement with a continually updated array of resources and guidance about the process for reaching out to federal government entities about cases and resources available from the federal government. Also, in June 2015, the DOJ and the National Association of Medicaid Fraud Units jointly hosted a training on Medicare and Medicaid abuse in nursing homes, which included sessions on financial scams targeting the elderly. The conference was attended by over 225 people, including DOJ attorneys, Assistant United States Attorneys, state Medicaid Fraud Control Unit attorneys, and HHS-OIG and FBI agents. At those sessions, the participants heard about federal efforts and resources available to states and local governments, among other things.
Consumer Financial Protection Bureau To encourage banks to identify and report suspected elder financial exploitation and to facilitate release of bank records to Adult Protective Services (APS) and law enforcement authorities for investigating this activity, the Director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau should (1) develop a plan to educate banks nationwide on how to identify and report possible elder financial exploitation; and (2) develop and disseminate information for banks on the circumstances under which they are permitted, under federal privacy laws, to release relevant bank records to law enforcement and APS agencies.
Closed – Implemented
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has taken steps to implement a plan to educate banks on how to identify and report potential elder financial exploitation. For example, in June 2013, CFPB, in collaboration with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, released a "Money Smart" curriculum to educate older adults and financial services providers about elder financial exploitation. CFPB also conferred and shared resources with the Financial Services Roundtable, the Credit Union National Association, and the National Association of Community Development Credit Unions to develop training for financial institution employees. Also, CFPB collaborated with the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network to help provide information on the preparation, use, and utility of Suspicious Activity Reports to financial institutions nationwide. Next, CFPB plans to consider approaches to multimedia training and comprehensive dissemination and outreach to financial institutions nationwide to improve their identification of and response to suspected elder financial exploitation. CFPB has been working to develop guidance for financial institutions to clarify that the privacy provisions of section 502 of the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act (GLBA), 15 U.S.C. 6802 (e), generally do not prohibit them from reporting suspected financial abuse to--or responding to requests for personal information from--law enforcement, adult protective services, and other relevant entities. CFPB sought collaboration from 7 other federal agencies with GLBA jurisdiction (Federal Reserve Board, Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, National Credit Union Administration, Federal Trade Commission, Securities and Exchange Commission, Commodities Futures Trading Commission). CFPB issued this guidance jointly with the other agencies in fall 2013.
Federal Trade Commission To increase the usefulness of data from the Consumer Sentinel Network database for federal, state, and local investigation and prosecution of elder financial exploitation, the Chairman of the Federal Trade Commission should (1) take additional steps to encourage more state and local law enforcement authorities nationwide to report to the Consumer Sentinel relevant individual complaints they receive of elder financial exploitation and to encourage and enable these authorities to query the system; and (2) study the feasibility of requiring that all complaints to the Consumer Sentinel include either the victim's age or an indication of whether the complaint involves elder financial exploitation.
Closed – Implemented
FTC has encouraged its Consumer Sentinel Network data contributors to submit complaints of elder financial exploitation to its database. For example, they have added the Maine Attorney General as a data contributor. FTC continues to seek additional sources of age range information; in particular, they plan to have the Better Business Bureaus (BBBs), which provided over 20% of Consumer Sentinel Network complaints in the past year, provide age information. FTC reported that they ask all consumers to indicate their age, and the agency considered the feasibility of requiring that all complainants answer the age question. However, they concluded that in doing so, they might lose a portion of consumer complaints from people who might object to being forced to answer this question. As a result, they decided to leave the age question as voluntary, as is everything else in the complaint form.

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