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A good financial advisor is usually counted on to make smart investment decisions, but sometimes there's a call to go beyond that. Leanne Kaufman, head of RBC Estate & Trust Services, increasingly finds her department dealing with cases where clients or their loved ones are concerned about financial elder abuse.

One recent situation involved an elderly client who had been worried about her ability to fend off requests to invest in a questionable business venture from a grown child.

“She's able to maintain her stance on what she considers appropriate support and what isn't," says Kaufman. “But as she gets older, she's concerned she may be more vulnerable, so she likes the idea of having a neutral independent third party."

Financial abuse of seniors is one of the darker realities of aging, and one that tends to stay out of the view of those not directly touched by it. It's a crime that's often not seen by the victim, and sadly often perpetrated by family members or close acquaintances.

“It's people in a position of trust," says Kaufman. “It might be the children; it might be a caregiver in a care facility. It might be a neighbour."

For seniors who have spent a lifetime accumulating wealth to support their retirement, it can be a shock to learn that someone close to them has been trying to take advantage of them. It's also something that is increasingly prevalent in an era where seniors are a rapidly growing segment of society.

Census data released in May shows the number of seniors in Canada increased by one-fifth between 2011 and 2016, and now account for 16.9 percent of the population.

With some studies showing close to half of seniors have experienced some sort of abuse, it's important for seniors, as well as their close friends and family members, to be aware of the warning signs of abuse and what they can do to prevent it.

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Elaine Blades, senior manager, Professional Practice Group at RBC Wealth Management's Estate & Trust Services, points to five common signs that abuse could be happening.

Missing valuables:

It may be easy to assume misplaced jewelry or cash is just the result of an aging mind, but experts say this is one of the most common signs of possible abuse. Often, seniors will notice this themselves, and may mention it to an advisor or family member.

Unusual banking activity:

Banking activities tend to follow normal patterns, and so a sudden change can be a red flag. Unfamiliar third-party bill payments through an account or requests to make payments on someone else's credit card can be a sign. Even a sudden increase in withdrawals could hint at something.

There could end up being a good reason for the activity, but it could also be a sign that someone is pressuring the senior to take out more money.

Sudden new companion:

A challenge in spotting abuse is that it often occurs in a grey area; how to determine whether a family member's requests for financial assistance constitute abuse or a legitimate appeal for help?

Also difficult to judge is the sudden appearance of a new friend or romantic interest, and whether it suggests potential abuse or is a legitimate relationship. “If they're at the bank or law office and the senior seems sort of uncomfortable in the presence of this new person, it could indicate that something's going on behind the scenes," says Blades

Unexplained property transfers:

Transferring property or bank account ownership should be seen as a major red flag, says Blades. “There have been cases where an elderly person has been convinced either to sign over the entire title to their house or perhaps to make it joint with an abuser, meaning the abuser would get it on the person's death,” she says.

Unexplained changes to will or power of attorney:

Financial power of attorney allows a designated person to act on behalf of the client in legal and financial affairs. It's a very significant designation and any changes to it, particularly when the transfer is not to a family member or a long-standing friend, could be a sign someone may be trying to take advantage.

How to guard against abuse

Blades says it's important to remember elder financial abuse is a crime, and that police services have vulnerable peoples' units that investigate and encourage the reporting of elder abuse.

But part of the trouble with stopping financial elder abuse is identifying it as it's happening, so it's crucial to make sure protections are in place ahead of time to fend off or stop potential abuse.

A good first step is having a wealth transfer plan in place and communicating it to the next generation or other beneficiaries. It's also important to ensure the power of attorney is chosen wisely, whether it be a family member, friend or lawyer. This should be someone who lives nearby, is reliable and stable financially.

“Often, (clients) don't give critical thought to who they're naming, they simply name a child," says Kaufman. “If a child is also the one that a parent may feel vulnerable to having to give money to, is that the right choice to name as your power of attorney?"

As in the earlier example, having a network of professionals (financial advisor, accountant, lawyer, etc.) can provide a level of protection for seniors. These professionals can be a first point of contact for seniors or their family members who are concerned about potential abuse, and can also be a set of eyes who may notice strange transactions.

If a friend or family member suspects financial abuse, a natural first point of contact would be with the senior.

It's important to also remember that the more isolated a person is, the more likely they can be victimized. Having someone close to make checks, whether it's a trusted family member, a close friend, or a trusted professional can in itself be a deterrent to potential victimizers.

“They go after the truly vulnerable," says Blades. “If you've got all your affairs in order, and you've got an advisor that knows what's going on, you're not easy pickings."