IN a recent nationwide survey on elder abuse and neglect (EAN) in Malaysia, approximately one in every 100 of our seniors experienced financial abuse. This is far behind the other types, which are psychological abuse and neglect. However, another local study indicated a higher occurrence of financial abuse; close to 5%, or one in every 20.

Traditionally, financial abuse reported in published studies refers to theft, deception and manipulation by those in a relationship of trust. In other words, perpetrators are often family members including children, in-laws and relatives. These figures may seem low but we must bear in mind two things.

First, elder abuse cases in general – and financial abuse in specific – are overwhelmingly under-reported. Experts have highlighted that only one case reaches the authority for every five to 20 elder abuse cases.

So, low figures of financial abuse among seniors are not a cause to celebrate; rather a caution that perhaps many are suffering in silence.

Second, these published figures mostly include “breach of trust” perpetrated by those who are known or close to the seniors. They do not take into account the current, more sophisticated scams or frauds perpetrated by unknown individuals or groups through phone calls and the internet. This type of exploitation has rapidly increased in recent years, but unfortunately, it is little studied and understood.

There are various types of scams, including government impostor scams, medical/ health insurance scams, investment scams, lottery scams, romance scams, charity scams and others. While anyone can be a victim, research shows that older adults, or senior citizens, are especially targeted for several reasons.

Impostors and scam artists are well aware that many elders have worked long enough to accumulate cash or properties. In addition, elders tend to be more trusting and relatively naive about cybercrimes. In some circumstances, living alone and feeling lonely can make them more vulnerable to scams as the perpetrator knows how to take advantage of their need for attention and companionship.

While there is a lack of systematic studies into financial exploitation of elders by strangers in Malaysia, scams and frauds have grabbed headlines numerous times. For instance, a retired teacher became a victim of the infamous “Macau Scam” early this year, losing RM1 million. Another senior citizen reported a loss of RM18,000 to an online love scam a few months later.

In May 2020, the Johor Baru police department announced a total of 250 phone scams, with the majority of victims being pensioners and senior citizens. The total loss was approximately RM11 million. The more worrying part is that stories captured by the media may only represent the tip of the iceberg, while the actual magnitude of the problem remains unknown.

People may wonder in disbelief, how these victims can fall so easily for these scams. Some are quick to pass judgement and blame the victims for being careless, irresponsible, negligent, foolish or outright naive. However, many are not aware of the modus operandi used by scammers and impostors, which can be clever, sophisticated and convincing.

First, these criminals do not work alone, they operate in teams in an organised manner and with a clear plan. Each member has a specific role and knows what to do and say – such cooperation makes the victim more easily convinced.

Second, scammers and con artists often have some access to victims’ basic information before carrying out their ploy. For example, if the victim recently made an online purchase using a credit card or has an overdue payment to make to a bank or tax department, scammers will take advantage of this, by quoting specific details when reaching out to the potential victim.

The person is easily persuaded as he or she may believe that the communication is genuine, given that the other party is providing somewhat correct information. This situation is further compounded when the impostors claim to be in a position of authority and speak in a tone and language that denote expertise and familiarity with the circumstances. The confidence and eloquence shown often throw the victim into confusion at first, followed by panic and fear upon realisation that he/she is in “trouble”.

Senior citizens are vulnerable to both types of financial abuse – one that is perpetrated by trusted parties (family members) and one that is carried out by strangers (scammers, impostors). The former has been increasingly studied and is now gaining attention among researchers and policy-makers. The latter is less understood, perhaps due to its evolving nature and the rising complexity of information and communication technology.

It is thus crucial for field experts, law enforcers, policy-makers and the banking sector to ensure that they are always one step ahead of the criminals, and are able to outsmart their strategies.

Similarly, our seniors need to be educated and empowered. They should be made aware of their rights, the common methods used by scammers, and how to handle confusing situations and suspicious communications.

But let us not forget that awareness and knowledge are less useful if one cannot act upon them. That means education must go hand in hand with the system, structure and regulations that are functioning and intact, to protect the vulnerable.

Caregivers too, can play a role by communicating regularly with older adults, and keeping an eye on their daily expenses to make sure no suspicious transactions go undetected.

Raudah Mohd Yunus, Universiti Teknologi Mara, Noran Naqiah Hairi, University of Malaya, Choo Wan Yuen, University of Malaya, Halimah Awang, University of Malaya, Siti Zaharah Jamaludin, Multimedia University, Farizah Hairi, University of Malaya, Devi Peramalah, University of Malaya, PEACE (Prevent Elder Abuse and Neglect) 2.0 Initiative.