Older adults are frequent victims of financial fraud, but there often are telltale signs that can help family members recognize something is amiss.

These warnings can be as clear as a sudden inability to pay one’s bills. But often the signals are more subtle: unopened statements from brokerage accounts you didn’t know existed, mail boxes stuffed with sweepstakes offers or the sudden reliance on a “new best friend” for financial advice.

If you think there’s a problem, it’s crucial to persevere. Don’t be surprised if the person at risk doesn’t cooperate as you try to get to the bottom of a potential fraud.

It’s embarrassing to be swindled at any age. Older adults already feeling ill at ease with their abilities, or feeling like their independence is threatened, may have a tough time admitting something has gone wrong and opening up about their finances.

Compounding the challenge is that often the perpetrator is someone the older victim knows and with whom he or she has built a trusting relationship—a member of the victim’s church or veterans group, an accountant or even a family member.

“Seniors are going to be affected by every kind of fraud, because they tend to be the ones that have the savings and the cash,” says Matt Kitzi, Missouri’s securities commissioner.

Prevention starts with being vigilant, says Patty Struck, who heads up Wisconsin’s securities division, which frequently is called upon to investigate fraud among older adults.

Just after Easter several years ago, Ms. Struck’s office received a call from a man who was concerned about his father’s financial adviser. While visiting his father over the holiday, the son learned that the adviser was helping the father take out a new loan on the house—the mortgage having previously been paid off. The adviser had even driven the father to the bank to help him fill out the paperwork, Ms. Struck says.

Seeing no financial need for the loan, the son called Wisconsin regulators. It turned out the adviser was looting clients’ accounts. That included not just the caller’s father, but also his grandmother’s money, as well.

“It’s all about reading between the lines and asking a lot of questions,” says Ms. Struck.

To help ease the process, she suggests that younger family members talk about their own finances with older relatives to help them feel more comfortable opening up. Listen for offhand remarks, such as a comment that their broker isn’t returning phone calls.

Don’t feel guilty about doing some detective work. If there is an open bank statement, check to see if there’s an unexpected name on the account. Other red flags: unusual transfers or big checks being cashed.

If you get the older adult’s cooperation, order a free copy of the person’s credit report. If anyone is opening up new accounts under the person’s name or running up any big credit-card bills it will turn up in the credit report. The older adult may not even have realized he or she is being victimized.

Catherine Ann Seal, an elder-law attorney in Colorado Springs, Colo., says when she gets referrals from the local adult protective-services department for seniors who may have been victimized, one of the first steps she takes is to check public tax and real-estate filings—usually available for free online. She checks if new estate-planning documents or liens or deeds for a home have been filed.

If suspicion revolves around a financial adviser, go to BrokerCheck at the website of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (finra.org) to see if a broker has a track record of breaking the rules. Some states let you check online, for a small fee, whether an individual has a criminal record.

A common way older adults fall victim to fraud is what experts call the “new best friend” scam. “The senior all of a sudden has a very strong bond with somebody they have not known for a very long time,” says Ms. Seal.

While those relationships can be on the up and up, con artists will often befriend lonely individuals, sometimes helping with errands or chores to gain their trust. “Very often the elderly people know that what they’re getting into is probably too risky,” Ms. Struck says. “But the person calling them to scam them is so friendly and they’re lonely, so they’re willing to take the time to talk to them.”

More wrenching is when a relative is the one taking advantage of an older person. “Some of the worst exploitation happens among family members,” says Ms. Seal.

Most often, she says, the theft is committed by a family member who is financially dependent on the senior. For example, a parent may be forced to sell a home and use the money to pay for a nursing home. A child, who was counting on the home for an inheritance, then dips into the parent’s savings.

“Transparency is the key,” Ms. Seal says. “Undue influence and exploitation only happens if no one else is aware of what’s going on.”

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