The 3 U’s of Elder Abuse: Urgent, Unsettling, and Unexpected

World Elder Abuse Awareness Day graphic

*June 15th is Elder Abuse Awareness Day

One thing we can all hope to do is to live a long life and enjoy our elder years. Many will save their whole life to prepare for retirement. Unfortunately, this nest egg puts a target on the back of many of our loved ones.

Elder financial abuse is a growing problem. Data shows that 1 in 5 people over the age of 65 report being a victim of fraud or abuse, while the actual number is likely much higher. It is estimated that elder financial abuse costs seniors $36.5 Billion dollars each year. That’s billion with a B.

While family members and care givers have the access and influence to commit these crimes regularly, the exploding trend of being tricked by a stranger is most alarming. These bad actors may strike quickly with an urgent crisis or spend months developing a relationship using a tactic known as financial grooming.

I recently heard an expert on this topic explain that these scams have red flags known as the 3 U’s: urgent, unsettling, and unexpected:


The urgent scams have been around for a while. A text is received that says a grandchild needs bail money in a faraway state or country. A newer spin on this is to use AI to create an electronic version of a loved one’s voice and have their phone number show on the caller ID. It can be extremely convincing and gut-wrenching to hear who is thought to be a family member in major distress. Another urgent tactic is to see a pop-up message that says the computer has been hacked and “tech support” needs to be contacted right away. The psychology behind the urgency puts the person receiving the message in fight or flight, which makes critical or analytical thought almost impossible. These urgent scams are typically for smaller dollar amounts but are very effective due to the psychological toll.


Many scams relay an unsettling message. An IRS agent impersonator texts that back taxes are owed and threatens jail time or bank account seizure unless a payment is made. A Social Security Administration impersonator may claim that social security payments have been suspended due to an issue that requires a payment to get them reinstated. Both of these issues also need urgent resolution, so the fight or flight is again activated.


Some of the unexpected scams have also been around for a while. This looks like the letter that comes in the mail that says a distant relative has left a large inheritance or that a large lottery prize has been won. In both of these, a prepayment of taxes is required to receive the new fortune. The newer version of these scams could look like a text that is obviously meant for someone else. Out of courtesy, the receiver responds to let the sender know they have the wrong number. The sender then strikes up a conversation and initiates a relationship. These may also be started through social media, either through a random friend request or a bad actor pretending to be someone you know.

The scammer in these instances is very patient and may work for months at developing a friendship or romantic relationship. The relationship builds trust, and then the new friend asks for money or recommends their great investment guy they know. The investments often involve cryptocurrency and may even have an app that looks legit. The financial grooming begins as soon as enough trust is established. These scams have cost victims millions of dollars and often wipe out life savings or even cause the victim to go into debt. Cruelly, victims often have a broken heart at the end of the scam due to the “relationship” that was believed to be real.


The best prevention tactic is education – educating ourselves and our loved ones. Understanding the psychology behind these tactics helps us to understand how they work and identify the red flags.

NDBT banker Lisa Shanks headshot

Lisa Shanks
Director of Operational Risk Management


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