British Columbia

Elder financial abuse: 5 tips on how to protect yourself and your money

Bankers, legal experts, and law enforcement officers explain how to protect against elder financial abuse, and what recourse is available to those who experience it.

Bankers, legal experts and law enforcement weigh in on how to keep your assets safe

Financial experts say there are a number of preemptive measures seniors can put in place to avoid having their bank accounts exploited. (CBC)

Last year, a national report estimated almost 250,000 elderly Canadians have been financially abused.

In the wake of the story of a 92-year-old B.C. man who alleges two of his children took nearly all his life savings, CBC's B.C. Almanac host Gloria Mackarenko asked bankers, legal experts, and law enforcement how to protect against financial abuse, and what recourse is available to those who experience it.

1. Get to know your banker

One of the simplest tips Mackarenko received was to make sure you're familiar with the tellers and other staff at your chosen bank.

The better they know you and your financial habits, the better they're able to spot irregularities which could signal that someone is taking financial advantage of you.

"Behavioural change, banking changes, an elder person coming in with a stranger — they could be a relative, of course — but coming in with someone that is not known to the frontline people are all sorts of symptoms that we try to recognize," said TD Bank crime and fraud investigator Pierre McConnell.

2. Avoid joint accounts

According to Ron Usher, president of Nidus, a personal planning and legal information resource centre, one of the most common ways seniors are taken advantage of financially is by giving relatives direct control of their assets.

"People sometimes go 'I'll just put my dad's name on the account or my son's name on the account,'" he said.

"Unfortunately joint tenancy [of financial accounts] has made a lot of money for the legal community because it often leads to disputes and you really have lost control [of your money]."

Usher says the safer alternative is to appoint a financial power of attorney, which gives the appointee control over your assets, but also binds them by statute to act in your best interest.

3. Put protections in place early

Several sources Mackarenko spoke to emphasized the importance of putting those protections in place before they're needed.

"We all tend to think we're both going to be capable forever and we're going to live forever. And we all know that's not true," said Usher.

"The proper thing to do is to plan for future incapacity, so that adults, while they're capable, should think ahead. Who do they trust in their lives? Who might they pick to be [power of] attorney?" said Catherine Romanko, B.C.'s public guardian and trustee.

In 2015, she said her office received on average over four calls a day on elder financial abuse.

4. Seek help from B.C.'s trustee

If you suspect you are being taken advantage of financially and your funds or property are about to be mishandled, there are emergency procedures Romanko's organization can enact to help.

"In extraordinary measures we can put in place protective measures for a limited period of time such as restricting access to bank accounts," she said.

They can also act to prevent land transfers if your real estate looks to be at risk. However, those options are only available to people who are incapable of making their own financial decisions.

5. Seek help from police

If the worst happens and you suspect you have been taken advantage of, a complaint to police can result in an investigation, and eventually charges such as theft or fraud.

"In some of the cases that come in, there's a clear disregard for using the money in the best interest of the person that has the money or owns the money," said North Vancouver RCMP Cpl. Peri Mainwaring.

"People are reluctant to go proceed with the criminal charges in many cases, it's embarrassing to have your family member charged, although in some cases it's legitimate, and it should be going ahead with charges."