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Protecting Your Finances

by Betty Soldz

Older women (and men) can be the target for financial exploitation and abuses at a staggering rate, statistically speaking. These abuses and crimes can take many forms and can come can come from unscrupulous contractors, con artists, a bogus charity or even from an abusive family member. The following are some of the most egregious abuses and a list of steps to consider in order to protect your finances.

For many older people their home is their most valuable asset. Unfortunately, many are in a position to lose their homes because of a home equity loan offered by someone who has an ulterior motive . To avoid what could become a tragedy, check the references and credentials of anyone who wants to work for you and offers you a home equity loan as a way to pay for the work. 

Don't take out a home equity loan against your home without asking someone you trust for assistance in understanding the loan being offered.  In a common scenario, dishonest salespeople try to convince you that your home needs repairs or improvements and offer to help with financing.  What starts out to be a small repair may cost you your home when the unscrupulous salesperson arranges a loan for you at a high interest rate which you may not be able to repay. Make sure to ask questions such as, "What is the interest rate?  What are the monthly payments?  Can they go up?  Is there a balloon payment?"   If someone offers you something that sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Con artists prey on us when we are vulnerable.  Beware of their con games and don't assume you are too clever to be taken in.  Con artists are very skillful at manipulating people and if you're not sure of what is being sold, don't consider buying. 

Always document financial arrangements, even those between you and a relative.  By putting financial arrangements in writing you not only protect yourself but you also reduce the likelihood of future misunderstandings or even legal proceedings.

A document sometimes used to protect oneself is a Power of Attorney for Finance and Property.  It is a document that authorizes someone to act in your stead should you become unable to handle all or part of your affairs.  Although this document can be used to protect your finances from unscrupulous people it can also have its own risks. Before you assign a power of attorney, make sure you understand the scope of the agreement and the authority you are giving to the person who will be exercising your Power of Attorney.  Always discuss with your own attorney how you can restrict the powers of your agent and grant only those powers needed.  In other words, if you only want your agent to balance your checking account, he/she does not need the broad power to sell or dispose of your property.  Before signing a Power of Attorney, it is prudent to understand how to revoke it and to have a form and a sample cover letter revoking it to send to your agent and your financial institutions.

The following safety tips are suggestions to help protect you from financial abuse.

  •   Don't sign blank forms because an unscrupulous person can fill in terms you never agreed to.
  •   Document financial arrangements and pay your bills with a check or credit card so that you always have a paper trail.
  •   Beware of door-to-door and phone sales pitches. 
  •   Never give out your bank account or credit card number over the phone unless you originated or verified the call.
  •   Be wary if someone says you just won a prize. Never send money to secure your prize.
  •   Verify charities you don't know with your state's Public Charities Division of the Attorney General or the Better Business Bureau.
  •   Don't give your ATM Pin number to anyone.  If you don't use your ATM cancel it.
  •   Don't be pressured into signing something you don't understand. If you are unsure about whether to sign a document, have a trusted friend or other advisor review it.
  •   If you take out a home equity loan don't borrow more than you need.  Some lenders will force you to refinance your credit card debt as a condition for qualifying for a loan.  This means turning an unsecured debt (which can be discharged in bankruptcy) into a debt secured by your home. If you can't pay you can lose your home through foreclosure. 
  •   Have your Social Security check deposited directly to you checking account. 
  •   Only carry limited amounts of cash. 
  •   Be knowledgeable about your finances including bank accounts, property and possessions.

  •  Lastly, protect your finances by planning ahead for your future.   To protect yourself don't be afraid to ask for help.  Financial matters can be confusing.  If you have questions or need help, ask a trusted family member, friend, clergy member, attorney, banker or other professional to assist you.

     If you or someone you know is being financially abused, report it to your local Elder Abuse Hotline.  Others you can contact for help are: Office of Elder Affairs, a state- or province-wide Legal Assistance for Seniors or Elders, Department of Justice - Financial Division or your local police department.

    The following are some websites that can be accessed in order to check some current scams. 

    U.S. Consumer Gateway
    Federal Trade Commission
    Internet Fraud and Complaint Center
    Securities and Exchange Commission
    National White Collar Crime Center

    For further explanations of these links go to our Government Page.



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