It's a sad fact of modern life: Senior citizens are often targeted by thieves and financial tricksters, and those residing in nursing homes can be the most vulnerable of all. If your loved one is in a facility—or will soon be entering one—how can you make sure their pension-plan payments, Social Security income, annuity income, and any other funds are protected from unscrupulous employees? Here are a few pointers.
- To protect a senior in a nursing home, have them set up a power of attorney with a trusted representative.
- Make sure to interview nursing home staff prior to selecting a home and ask about safeguards against theft.
- Use electronic direct deposit for payments rather than checks, which could be fraudulently cashed, and also get bank statements electronically.
Set Up a Power of Attorney
Have the senior legally appoint a trusted relative or friend to act as a representative with the authority to manage money and make financial decisions by having a lawyer draw up a power of attorney (POA) document. In fact, you can do this long before you think your loved one might ever end up in a nursing home.
The POA can be written to go into effect only if the patient enters a facility or can no longer make their own decisions. POAs can act as a deterrent: If a sticky-fingered staffer at a facility knows John’s son has control over his finances, they might be less likely to target John.
Ask About Safeguards
Another important step is to interview the appropriate nursing home staff prior to admission. Ask about how they respond to late or missed payments (unpaid bills can be a sign of hanky-panky), how they handle cash for residents, how they release money from residents’ accounts, and whether they allow salespeople to make onsite presentations.
Also, ask about the facility’s policies on theft and what measures they take to safeguard residents’ checkbooks, ATM cards, federal benefit cards, and other sensitive documents against financial and identity theft. Finally, ask what the facility’s procedures are if they suspect a resident is being financially exploited or a victim of theft or fraud. A trustworthy facility will have clear procedures in place to prevent and detect problems.
Use Direct Deposit
Don’t have checks mailed to the nursing home. Instead, have payments directly deposited to the resident’s bank account. Nursing home residents will also want to receive their bank statements electronically to prevent someone from gaining access to their financial information by stealing their mail.
Residents should also avoid logging into sensitive accounts from any public or shared computer, where account security could be compromised. If you suspect mailed checks have been stolen and fraudulently cashed, notify the U.S. Postal Inspection Service as well as the facility. And, as always, watch out for fake mail and email that pretends to be from a financial institution but is really a ploy to steal money.
Don’t let the nursing home directly accept federal benefit payments on behalf of a resident and avoid the use of nursing home trust funds.
Don’t Let the Facility Receive Disbursements
A nursing home can be appointed a patient’s representative payee. This means the facility can directly accept federal benefit payments from the Social Security Administration, Department of Veterans Affairs, Department of Defense, Railroad Retirement Board, and the Office of Personnel Management on a resident’s behalf. The facility is then supposed to use those payments for the resident’s benefit—to pay legitimate bills for which they are responsible, for example.
The potential for financial elder abuse is obvious with this arrangement (if not from outright fraud by the nursing home, then from administrative snafus). There have been cases of nursing homes overpaying themselves with that income. “If a resident has dementia to the extent that it limits his or her ability to handle finances, a trusted authorized representative, often a family member, should handle income and bills,” says Eric Carlson, directing attorney of Justice in Aging, a national organization that uses the power of law to fight senior poverty. “Some residents do not have such representatives, and these are the residents at greatest risk."
Don’t Bank With the Facility
Nursing homes may offer resident trust funds into which patients can deposit their pension checks, Social Security checks, and other monies. The problem is that unscrupulous nursing home employees can potentially steal from these accounts—and they have.
As a 2013 investigation by Peter Eisler for USA Today revealed, 20 states did not require background checks for nursing home office workers who handle residents’ trust accounts, and only a handful of states require that those accounts be audited. The investigation found that business managers, bookkeepers, and other office workers had stolen from thousands of residents’ accounts. The lack of audits made it easier for thefts to go undetected. Some of these thefts were in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Nursing homes cannot require residents to deposit funds in resident trust funds and have no legal right to manage residents’ money. Even if a resident does put money in one of these funds, they must authorize every transaction or appoint a representative to do so (unless the resident or representative directs the nursing home to release some or all of the funds on an “as needed” basis).
If you are going to deposit your funds in such an account, know whether your state requires audits and background checks. If not, find out if the nursing home conducts its own criminal background checks on the people who will have access to residents’ accounts and if it performs voluntary audits of accounts.
The Bottom Line
Given that they may not be able to feed themselves or get out of bed, let alone manage their finances, nursing home residents are especially vulnerable to exploitation. Taking steps to prevent having income stolen means avoiding not just financial losses but also emotional distress and the ultimate irony: being evicted from the facility because they can no longer pay the bill.