The Commonwealth Blog

Elder Abuse and Technology

Jun 6, 2013 @ 2:45 PM

By Mehroz Baig, Butler Koshland Fellow, Commonwealth Club

In a world of Silicon Valley technology where tourists take photos using iPads and Google Glass can practically read your mind, it may sound surprising that there remains a sector of our population that is only now beginning to learn about the Internet. Yet that is true of older Americans. According to a 2012 Pew Research study (link opens a PDF), 53 percent of Americans aged 65 or older use the Internet or at least email. But once they get online, 70 percent use it on any given day. It is likely that more and more older adults will begin to use the Internet and use it more extensively as our demographics shift toward an older population.

Between 2000 and 2010, the number of people aged 65 or above rose by 15.3 percent in the U.S. and 18.3 percent in California, according to the United States Department of Health and Human Services (link opens a PDF). A United Nations Population Fund report (link opens a PDF) reports that “around the world, two persons celebrate their 60th birthday every second.” And over the next 20 years, the Stanford Center on Longevity projects that California’s older adult population will double, from 4.3 million in 2010 to 8.4 million in 2030.

As prevalence of Internet use increases among older adults, so does the possibility of scams and frauds, many of which lead to financial abuse of the elderly. “It’s surprising how many elders are on their computers and on their iPhones,” said Talitha Guinn, director of the Elder Abuse Prevention program at the Institute on Aging. “It opens them up to a whole level of exploitation.” The losses from and the impacts of financial elder abuse are increasing. According to a MetLife Mature Institute report (link opens a PDF), the estimated loss due to elder financial abuse in 2011 was $2.9 billion, a 12 percent increase from 2008.

Martha Deevy, director of the Financial Security Division at Stanford’s Center on Longevity agrees. “Fifteen years ago, email didn’t exist, so the fact that almost 45 percent of these incidents are originating from the Internet is pretty profound.” A study (link opens a PDF) by the Center on Longevity found that “the means by which fraudsters contact targets and obtain money mirror trends in everyday transactions, with the Internet outpacing all other mechanisms.” However, Deevy is quick to point out that there is no profile for victims; different people can be defrauded under different circumstances. “There’s a myth that older people are more susceptible to being victims of financial fraud, but we find that older people are more targeted.”

During the 2010-2011 fiscal year, the San Francisco Police Department received and assessed 445 cases of elder and dependent adult financial abuse, according to a report by the San Francisco Department on the Status of Women. This was the third year in which the percentage of cases increased. However, crimes like these are difficult to prosecute: Of the 100 elder abuse cases received by the San Francisco District Attorney’s office, only 35 were filed. Of those, 29 led to convictions by guilty pleas, two were brought to trial and one conviction resulted from those trials. This data includes all cases of elder abuse, not just financial abuse cases.

Elder financial abuse as a category is highly complicated, with abuse taking place in many forms and through many people. Guinn notes that family members perpetrate 90 percent of all abuse, but financial abuse provides more avenues for stranger involvement. Though email is one way through which scams advance and are perpetrated, social networking sites also offer another outlet, especially as increasing numbers of older adults use sites like Facebook and LinkedIn. According to Pew, one in three seniors uses Facebook and LinkedIn and for adults over 50, the main reason for using social networking sites is to stay in touch with family members. That opens the gates for scams such as the “grandson scam,” where a perpetrator pretends to be a grandson or granddaughter in an emergency and asks for money, targeting potential victims through spam emails or through viruses that hack into social media accounts.

Experts simply suggest being extra vigilant and realizing that your information may not be as private as you might imagine. “We believe that self awareness is really the best prevention,” Deevy said. Additionally, there are a myriad of resources available for older adults to learn more about online safety as well as to report any incidents of abuse. Guinn encourages people to be familiar with Adult Protective Services and other resources such as those available through the Institute on Aging. Additionally, Facebook has information on security measures — however, their advice is targeted to a general audience and is not specific to older adults.

Guinn adds that in addition to being aware of resources, preventing isolation can also prevent elder abuse. She notes that isolation is the greatest risk factor for abuse. Ironically, for many older adults, it is perhaps that isolation that pushes them to learn and use the Internet in the first place.

Recent news on elder abuse in the Bay Area:

Additional resources: