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10 July 2024 | Comment | Article by Victoria Jones

Dealing with the financial abuse of vulnerable adults

Although, anyone can become the victim of a fraud or scam, fraudsters will often deliberately target vulnerable adults, for example :

  • those who lack the mental capacity required to manage their own finances;
  • those who are reliant on others for care and support;
  • those who are dealing with mental or physical health issues and/or
  • those who are isolated.

Such is the serious nature for this type of fraud that Section 42 of the Care Act 2014 (which outlines how care and support in England should be provided to adults with care needs), states that the definition of abuse under the Act also includes ‘financial abuse’, such as:

  1. having money or other property stolen,
  2. being defrauded,
  3. being put under pressure in relation to money or other property, and
  4. having money or other property misused.

Our Private Wealth Disputes team provides specialist advice on missing estate assets, elder fraud and financial abuse involving vulnerable adults. They can also deal with financial disputes and disputes involving financial attorneys/deputies in the Court of Protection.

Who can be targeted?

Historically, people within older age groups have been the targets of financial abuse, as they are likely to have accumulated assets during their lifetime, and may be affected by some of the above vulnerabilities, for example a decline in health. This type of fraud is sometimes referred to as elder fraud.

The Office for National Statistics estimates that around 1.5 million older adults in England may have suffered from financial abuse in 2020, and the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau reported that that people aged over 70 lost more than £12.6 million to courier fraud in 2022 (a fraud usually involving a telephone call or email, where the fraudsters pose as authority figures e.g. bank employees or police officers).

However, vulnerable adults in other age groups are now just as likely to become targets. In the last 4 years, the UK population has had to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic and the impact of global events on the UK economy. This means that many more people in the UK who may not previously have been considered as vulnerable may now be experiencing mental health issues (such as stress, anxiety or depression) and also other health issues such as long-Covid. If a larger proportion of UK adults become vulnerable, it is likely that cases of financial abuse will increase in the future.

What is the impact of financial abuse?

Spotting financial abuse early is important because of the devastating impact it can have on vulnerable adults, such as;

  • depriving them of essential funds (which are often needed to provide for their care and wellbeing);
  • adversely affecting their physical and/or mental health;
  • plunging them into debt or creating future financial insecurity;
  • damaging their self-confidence;
  • causing them to lose their independence and/or increasing their reliance on others;
  • affecting their trust and relationships with others; and/or
  • leaving their future estates depleted – and preventing beneficiaries under their wills from receiving their inheritance.

The examples mentioned below are only a few of the reported cases where the breach of trust involved was significant:

Case 1

In 2022, Derek Moffitt (DM), was jailed for stealing than £70,000 over a two year period from after his mother had moved into a care home in 2015. As, his mother’s attorney under a Lasting Power of Attorney (LPA), DM had a legal right to deal with his other’s assets, which he abused for his own personal financial gain.

When his mother (who was around 94 years old when DM was jailed) became concerned about how her money was being spent and asked DM to see her bank statements, DM refused and offered her £500 in cash instead. A relative later confronted DM and the Police became involved.

Judge Michael Gledhill QC told DM that: “A message has to go out to people who have control over other people’s financial affairs that if they abuse it the consequences are very serious indeed.”

Case 2

Similarly, in 2023, Karl Zieroldwas (KZ) was jailed for 3 years and 4 months after stealing his mother’s life savings of more than £250,000 while acting as her attorney under an LPA. He reportedly used the money to fund a failed business and to purchase items such as cars and luxury holidays. His mother had dementia and she had moved into a care home due to her declining mental health.

KZ’s fraud was discovered when concerns were raised about an unpaid car bill, and after being confronted, KZ admitted that he had stolen the money. The funds were not recovered and it was reported that KZ’s mother did not then have funds available to pay for her care.

These cases are just the ‘tip of the iceberg’ and, every year, there are reports of theft those are supposed to provide care and/or support to vulnerable adults.

Tips for spotting financial abuse

As the above case examples show, one of the main problems with detecting financial abuse is the fact that it is often carried out by someone who is known to the victim and whom they trust. For example, a relative, friend, carer or attorney acting under a Property & Affairs LPA.

This can make it very difficult for victims to either notice that the fraud is happening, or (if they are aware that it has taken place), to be able to be able tell someone about it.

Sometimes an attorney acting under and LPA may notice financial irregularities or the executors of a vulnerable’ s adult’s estates may discover that assets are missing after the vulnerable adult’s death, but fraud can be difficult to spot while it is happening, and even harder to prove.

It is therefore vital for anyone who supports or works with vulnerable adults to be alert to ‘red flags’, which might suggest that further investigation or reporting is required. These include:

  • A vulnerable adult spending beyond their own means or contrary to their usual spending pattern, for example, payments being made for flights when they have not travelled abroad or online shopping when they do not use a computer;
  • Someone trying to isolate a vulnerable adult from others or their usual support network;
  • Money, bank/credit cards or cheques going missing;
  • Bank statements not being received or being redirected without explanation;
  • Valuables (e.g. watches or jewellery) disappearing from a vulnerable adult’s home;
  • Someone who has access to a vulnerable adult’s assets suddenly appearing to live beyond their means e.g. purchasing luxury items or holidays;
  • Unexplained large gifts or transfers being made from the vulnerable adult’s assets to a third party;
  • High levels of cash withdrawals or ‘contactless’ card payments being made;
  • Signatures on documents and cheques which do not resemble the vulnerable adult’s usual signature;
  • Someone suddenly being added as a co-signatory to a vulnerable adult’s bank account;
  • Unexplained and sudden changes being made LPAs and wills;
  • Unpaid bills, arrears or debt recovery action when the vulnerable adult should have sufficient assets available to pay their bills and/or someone else should be arranging payment on their behalf;
  • A vulnerable adult not having funds to buy items when they should have sufficient money available to do so;
  • After a vulnerable adult’s death, assets appear to be missing from their estate e.g. jewellery, cash in bank accounts, or a car.

How to deal with financial abuse

The presence of the above ‘flags’ does not confirm that financial abuse has occurred, rather that further investigation may be required.

If you suspect financial abuse, what steps you might be able to take will usually depend on the facts, the evidence available at that stage and your role.

In some circumstances, you might report your concerns to Social Services, the Police or Action Fraud.

If case involves an attorney acting under an LPA or a deputy (person appointed by the Court of Protection to manage someone’s finances) or you are an attorney or deputy who is concerned about financial abuse involving a vulnerable adult, the Office of the Public Guardian and/or Court of Protection may be able to assist.

The who, how and when

The possibility of incorrect allegations being made must also be taken into account. This is important where there is no documentary evidence of financial abuse, there are family relationships involved and continuity of care may be affected.

It is therefore essential to consider the ‘who, how and when’? This is who you report you concerns to, how you raise them and when you report your concerns.

Obtaining specialist legal advice can help to navigate this difficult issue to a successful resolution. This may include working with third party organisations, making applications to the Court of Protection or a fraudster being asked to repay any funds or return assets.

Our Private Wealth Disputes team provides specialist advice on missing estate assets, elder fraud and financial abuse involving vulnerable adults. They can also deal with financial disputes and disputes involving financial attorneys/deputies in the Court of Protection.

Author bio

Victoria Jones


Victoria Jones is a Partner in the Private Wealth Disputes team. She advises and represents charities, homes and families in probate, charitable legacy and contentious will and trust disputes.

Victoria also specialises in cases involving the Mental Capacity Act 2005 and Court of Protection disputes. She has a particular interest in cases in cases involving financial fraud and disputed lifetime gifts involving vulnerable adults.

Disclaimer: The information on the Hugh James website is for general information only and reflects the position at the date of publication. It does not constitute legal advice and should not be treated as such. If you would like to ensure the commentary reflects current legislation, case law or best practice, please contact the blog author.


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