Commissioner Johnson: Protecting Older Adults from Financial Scams

In 2015, I had the opportunity to help organize President Obama’s White House Conference on Aging, where for the first time, this convening that dates back to the origins of Medicare focused on the importance of protecting older Americans from financial scams and exploitation.

Today, as Governor Murphy’s Commissioner of Human Services, I have the chance to help bring that same message home to help New Jersey’s older residents. 

We are doing just that by partnering recently with the U.S. Department of Justice-funded National White Collar Crime Center to train 150 law enforcement officials and social workers on how to prevent and protect older New Jerseyans from financial scams and fraud.

Here’s why this work is so important. 

Our Department responded to one case where an older New Jersey man with dementia withdrew $50,000 from his annuity account at the urging of his neighbor, who later stole the money. Thankfully, through our partnership with law enforcement, the neighbor was caught and convicted. 

In another case, an older New Jersey woman’s daughter stole tens of thousands of dollars from her accounts. Fortunately, in that case, the daughter also was caught and ordered to pay restitution.

Sadly, we see far too many of these stories through our work. That is why the New Jersey Department of Human Services is leading a statewide effort with our partners in law enforcement to raise awareness and combat financial exploitation of older adults. 

Last year, U.S. banks reported a record 24,400 suspected cases of financial abuse to the Treasury Department.

Most often financial exploitation of older adults occurs through access to bank accounts, credit cards or other financial vehicles and involves trusted individuals such as a family member, friend, or caregiver. However, older Americans also are particularly vulnerable to and frequently targeted by scammers, including online, through robocalls and by mail.  Scammers often provide fake credentials to gain trust, or may threaten or attempt to frighten the individuals they are attempting to scam.

Reporting these crimes is important, and here in New Jersey we are increasing efforts to protect our citizens from crimes that can leave them broke, homeless or struggling to recoup the savings they spent their lives building. Yet, despite growing awareness, elder financial abuse remains under-reported.

According to the National Adult Protective Services Association, only about 1 in every 44 cases is reported. Sometimes people feel embarrassed or afraid to speak up and report financial crimes, and they may be concerned about reporting individuals who are close to them.  We need to help our older friends and neighbors by reporting potential financial exploitation, working together to stop it, and ending the stigma and embarrassment that can prevent people from reporting. 

Training is essential to helping to advance our statewide goal of combatting financial exploitation of older New Jerseyans.  Our partnership with the Department of Justice and law enforcement throughout the State to increase training and knowledge about how to identify and respond to signs of exploitation is an important tool in this work.   As we support training of the professional first responders, social workers and others, we also need every New Jerseyans’ help to tackle this issue.

If you see any of these common signs of financial exploitation happening to your older friends, family or neighbors, and suspect there is an issue, call 1-877-222-3737 to connect with your county Office on Aging, 1-800-242-5846 to reach the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs or reach out to local law enforcement:

  • Unexpected changes in bank account balances or banking practices;
  • Allowing a new friend or acquaintance to make decisions on the elderly person’s behalf;
  • Unauthorized, unanticipated or unexplained financial account withdrawals;
  • Disappearance of funds or valuable possessions; or
  • Sudden changes to a will or other important financial documents

Together, we can help older New Jerseyans to thrive in their homes and communities.