Financial Exploitation – Part 1: The Exploitable Brain

The financial exploitation of America’s senior citizens is big business. Researchers say that between 20 to 40 percent of seniors over the age of 70 are affected. Financial exploitation costs older adults about $36 billion every year, roughly the same amount that McDonald's earned in 2019.

According to Shannon Miller, a board-certified elder law attorney at the Miller Elder Law Firm, a Life Care Planning Law Firm in Gainesville, Florida, these shocking statistics are just the tip of the iceberg. “What we're finding is that the exploitation of seniors is an epidemic now because it’s so lucrative for scammers,” Shannon explains. “Once they target an individual who falls for their scheme, they keep going back to the well until the well is dry.”

On average, each time a senior falls for a scam, he or she loses $17,500. Researchers say that the average senior is exploited seven times before family members discover what’s going on. And once a senior citizen falls for a scam, his or her information is sold on the dark web and the person will be repeatedly exploited until steps are taken to prevent it. “We’re actually seeing cases where there are face-to-face exploiters that will come to your door once they know you're exploitable,” notes Shannon. “They leverage that knowledge in order to continue scamming you.”

For elder law attorneys at Life Care Planning Law Firms, helping clients and their families navigate cognitive issues is nothing new. “We’re trained to recognize incapacity,” Shannon explains. “But the exploitable brain is different.”

Thanks to recent advances in brain science, there’s now scientific research to explain what elder law attorneys have long recognized. “Incapacity and exploitability are not the same,” Shannon says. “If a prospective client isn’t willing to meet with me without the presence of a family member, that is one of the signals that this person may be exploitable.”

What makes a brain exploitable? Researchers say that the exploitable brain loses the ability to discern due to age-related changes caused by the thinning of the cortical insula, which has a negative impact on the executive function of a person’s brain. In severe cases, a person can completely lose the ability to assess the risks and benefits of a situation. Shannon sees exploitable older adults in her office every day. “They often present as well-grounded, sensible people with excellent memory,” Shannon notes. “They’ve just lost the ability to discern risk. They are totally influenceable, even by me. That’s why I, as an attorney, insist on meeting one-on-one with the individual for an extended period of time. My goal is to determine whether the person is self-directed or whether he or she is under the influence of another person.”

A study reported in AARP Magazine highlighted an interesting relationship between the financial acuity of seniors and their willingness to trust. Researchers found that a person’s financial acuity peaks at age 55 and then begins a slow decline. However, as a person’s financial acuity is diminishing, his or her trust levels are increasing. Factor in the exploitable brain and you have a recipe for disaster. “When I speak at workshops, I always ask if they know of someone who was the victim of financial exploitation,” Shannon adds. “Every hand in the room goes up, but no one wants to admit it might be them.”