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Dave Johnson, Assistant Director, University Relations
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KU Graduate Student and Professor Conduct Research on Elder Financial Abuse

April 2, 2014

KUTZTOWN, Pa. - Associate Professor of counseling Dr. Joanne Cohen Hamilton and Holly Baruch, a master's degree candidate in the couples, marital and family mental health counseling program, have spent the past year researching financial elder abuse.

Hamilton, who received trauma prevention training during a yearlong sabbatical, and has led individualized studies for students interested in trauma work, began observing different types of elder abuse in cases that came to her through her pro bono work with trauma clients or from students. She discovered that financial elder abuse exists in a variety of settings, including assisted living facilities, independent living facilities and within the community.

"This is a personal issue for so many people who are in the baby boomer generation," Hamilton explained. "They're getting old enough to think about what will happen as they age, and it's rare to hear from someone who doesn't have concerns about their parents."

According to Hamilton, the parallel between child abuse and elder abuse is obvious - people are afraid that if they speak out, the situation will worsen. So Hamilton and Baruch began collecting data on financial elder abuse. Over the course of one year, they've filled two shopping carts to the brim with scam mail intended to divest senior citizens from their limited funds.

"The vulnerability of elders is very similar to the vulnerability of children, or mentally challenged individuals," Hamilton said. "People who are in some way disadvantaged find it more difficult to defend themselves from this kind of victimization."

Scam mail is only one form of financial elder abuse; caregiver exploitation and stranger fraud are also rampant, but sometimes more difficult to prove. With predatory mailings, proof of fraud is readily available. Scam mailings targeting elderly persons exist in several manifestations, including pleas from illegitimate or low-rated charities; fraudulent bills that request money for services that weren't actually rendered; bills for pledges that were never made; or sweepstakes that require payment for prizes; among others.

"When I began to investigate one individual's mail, I noticed that so many fraudulent companies affiliate themselves with the appearance of legitimate companies," Hamilton said. "They name the organization so it sounds familiar or aligns with a noble cause, such as helping veterans, treating medical conditions, or saving social security. It's extremely important that consumers check out the organizations they donate to, even if they sound good, with a consumer group. The Better Business Bureau or Charity Navigator are good places to start. I've been able to identify several parallels between the manner in which grooming occurs and what's printed on the mail."

Grooming, in child abuse, entails targeting a victim and attempting to befriend them or establish some sort of emotional connection. Groomers can try to gain their victim's trust, or belittle them. With elder abuse, scam mail reenacts grooming by insulting intelligence; threatening people; telling people they're special; or learning information about the victim to create a targeted scam; among other tactics.

However, there are some warning signs. For example, if an elderly person receives a lot of junk mail, it's a clear indication of fraud. Although there is no national elder abuse hotline, persons living in Pa. can call 1-800-490-8505 to report any type of elder abuse, financial or otherwise.

Although the costs of financial elder abuse can be enormous, both financially and emotionally, the issue sometimes doesn't get as much attention as other types of elder abuse. Hamilton and Baruch are analyzing a year's worth of scam mail, in order to make further recommendations on how to manage this pervasive and harmful practice. 

Baruch, who was invited to conduct research with Hamilton after completing an independent study on disorders across the lifespan and the benefits of family therapy, had been unfamiliar with the scam mail epidemic and financial elder abuse.

"I had no idea this was going on," Baruch said. "I thought, 'OK, you get mail, you can throw it out.' We focus on exploring how elders are deceived and manipulated through scam mail. If you look at the language that they use, and read some of the letters that they send, it's incredible how they articulate their argument to make readers feel guilty for not giving them money. They'll also try to scare elders into sending them money."

With a bachelor's degree in communication studies from Bloomsburg University, Baruch is investigating communication and deception in financial elder abuse. In the past, she has conducted research on different forms of communication within relationships and deception within electronically mediated communication, and has presented at the 2011 Eastern Communications Association conference and the 2013 Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education Graduate Research Symposium.

Hamilton and Baruch presented their research on financial elder abuse, which was approved by KU's Institution Review Board, at the 2014 annual meeting of the Eastern Psychological Association (EPA), held March 13 - 16 in Boston.