An heirloom bracelet goes missing, electronic gadgets can't be found, a wallet or bank account seems to be bleeding cash. Talk to anyone who's hired someone to help care for an older loved one, and theft is almost always a major worry. Bringing a paid caregiver into the home -- whether through an agency or privately -- can come as welcome relief to all, but it can also feel like a risky decision. Stories abound about vulnerable people who've been taken advantage of.
The solution? Be careful, proactive, and alert. Here, some of the key warning signs that a caregiver is on the take.
1. Receipts that don't add up
If grocery shopping and other errands are among a caregiver's responsibilities, it's pretty easy for "mix-ups" to occur. You might notice items listed on a receipt that seem out of character for your loved one, or certain supplies that seem to run out -- and be replaced -- with surprising frequency. If the caregiver takes your loved one out to shop or dine, you may notice purchases from stores that he or she doesn't typically frequent or restaurant meals that are out of your family's typical price range.
Why it's worth worrying about: A few dollars here, five dollars there may not seem worth making a fuss over. After all, caregivers aren't usually well paid, so is it worth rocking the boat over a little bit of paycheck padding?
Yes, says Carolyn Rosenblatt, author of The Boomer's Guide to Aging Parents. "You may see $6.50 for a lipstick, knowing Grandma doesn't wear lipstick, but if you let it slide you're sending a signal that no one's minding the store." Typically, these first purchases are tests, Rosenblatt says. "The caregiver is saying, 'Let's see if I can get away with it.' If you don't respond by confronting her, you're saying, 'Yes, you can.'"
What to do: For starters, avoid cash. Supply the caregiver with debit gift cards preloaded with a limited balance. This way, if fraud is occurring, you can limit the amount of liability your family is exposed to. Also, use online banking to monitor card transactions, so you can see how much is being spent at each store. Ask the caregiver to supply receipts for each shopping trip, and keep an eye out for any purchase that seems unnecessary or for quantities that seem overlarge.
If you find yourself hesitating over a questionable purchase in case it's an honest mistake, bring it up in that spirit, keeping it light and nonconfrontational. Explain that you noticed a purchase that didn't seem to be something intended for your family member, and you'd like to keep those kinds of purchases separate in the future so it's easy for you to keep track.
Phone use and friendships
2. Frequent cell phone use on the job
Texting or taking calls on the job is discourteous and distracting -- but it could also be a sign of something more serious.
Why it's worth worrying about: While there are legitimate reasons a caregiver may need to make an occasional call, if someone's on the phone all the time, it's a signal that some outside relationship or network of relationships is more important than caregiving. It may even be that some outsider is calling the shots, says Rosenblatt.
What to do: If you -- or the agency you're working with -- haven't already done so, run a thorough background check on the person you've hired. While some agencies do an in-depth background check on all employees, including requiring drug testing, others are much less thorough. It's important to make sure good research was done, says Rosenblatt, because all too often records of crimes committed in other states or counties may not come up during a simple records search in your area.
Next, make sure you've securely protected your family member's finances from potential fraud. The best way to do this is by having your family member sign a durable power of attorney for finances, which authorizes you or another trusted person to oversee financial transactions. A power of attorney is just a piece of paper, though, unless it's recognized by the financial institutions that handle your loved one's money. The safest strategy is to inform the banks and other financial institutions that you're the proper legal agent for your loved one's finances and that no one else is authorized to act. To do this, you'll probably be asked to show a copy of the power of attorney document and may need to fill out additional forms.
3. Cultivating a personal connection
For many older adults, a caregiver quickly becomes a trusted friend, often the only person they see from day to day. With such consistent and intimate contact, close bonds are common. But keep your eyes open for anything that seems to step over the boundaries of professionalism. Watch and listen for signs that your loved one is becoming emotionally involved with or dependent on his or her caregiver, such as talking about the caregiver all the time or seeming to consider that relationship more important than friendships or family ties.
Why it's worth worrying about: Typically, thieves planning a scam will gradually "prime the pump," seducing an elderly target with greater and greater shows of affection until he or she becomes emotionally dependent on the caregiver. "It can start very subtly: touches on the arm, little gifts, shows of affection," says caregiving author Carolyn Rosenblatt. Hugs, compliments, and attention become stepping stones to building a connection that's overly intimate. Some concerned family members have found themselves in situations in which their loved ones bought their caregivers cars or gave other expensive gifts, paid their rent, or "loaned" them money that was never repaid.
What to do: Prevention is worth a pound of cure, experts say. Loneliness and isolation leave many older adults susceptible to all manner of exploitation, from relatively small expenditures to outright fraud and identity theft. To protect your loved one, you'll want to act on two fronts.
First, the psychological: Think about your loved one's day-to-day interactions. Does he have opportunities for companionship other than his caregiver's visits? Can you find a day program or other activity for him to attend, or are there others who might visit from time to time to liven up his routine?
Next, the practical: Focus on safeguarding against his caregiver gaining access to his finances. Experts recommend setting up online banking for checking, credit cards, and any other accounts, so you can monitor all activity in real time. (Most transactions post within a few days.) If you check credit card records and discover charges that you or your loved one didn't authorize, act quickly to protect yourselves from identity theft, says Caring.com legal expert Barbara Kate Repa. Close the account and immediately alert the company holding the account that you believe it's been used without your authorization. Then alert one of the three major consumer credit reporting agencies and request a fraud alert. If your loved one hasn't already signed a durable power of attorney for finances so someone trusted has authorization to access financial accounts, encourage him or her to do it now.
Manipulation and missing work
4. Bids for sympathy
Personal tales of woe are a common danger sign. If your loved one begins expressing worry and concern for a situation his caregiver has told him about, that's your cue to get involved -- and quickly. "A sister with cancer who can't afford medical care, a child who needs dental work, a family member in another country who's being persecuted and desperately needs to come to the U.S. -- these are the kinds of scenarios we hear all the time," says caregiving author Carolyn Rosenblatt. "The next thing you know, your loved one's writing checks and that money's gone."
Why it's worth worrying about: The caregiver relationship is a professional service. If it becomes personal enough for your loved one to become involved in the caregiver's private life, the caregiver has clearly crossed a line. Best-case scenario: The caregiver is manipulating your family member. Worst-case scenario: An outright fraud is in progress.
What to do: Act quickly. You may hesitate to question your loved one's judgment, but the caregiver, if he or she is a practiced scammer, will be counting on that. Call a family meeting and discuss the situation with all family members, including siblings who don't live nearby. Make sure everyone is on the same page, so you don't end up in the all-too-common situation in which family members are divided against one another or undermine one another. As many of you as possible should talk to your parent or other loved one together, explaining how concerned you are and why you need to take steps to protect him or her.
If the caregiver was hired through an agency, it's a good idea to alert the agency to your concerns and ask them to double-check the records of the searches performed and make certain this caregiver hasn't been accused or convicted of exploitation or fraud in the past. If the caregiver was hired independently and a thorough background check was not performed at the time, now would be the time to do some digging.
Depending on how your loved one reacts, you may wish to terminate the caregiver's employment or set up a more careful monitoring situation in which you limit access to funds. If possible, consult a family lawyer to make sure all possible legal protections are in place, says Caring.com legal expert Barbara Kate Repa. If your loved one's judgment appears to be seriously impaired and you're not able to convince him or her to grant you power of attorney, you may need to consider trying to obtain legal guardianship, also called conservatorship.
5. Missing work on Mondays
Some days your loved one's caregiver seems responsible and reliable; other days -- particularly Mondays or the first day back after time off -- he or she goes AWOL.
Why it's worth worrying about:"This is a classic sign of alcoholism or substance abuse; people go on a bender over the weekend and then can't make it into work on Mondays," says caregiving author Carolyn Rosenblatt. "Unfortunately, alcoholism and chemical dependency often go hand in hand, and they frequently lead people to steal to meet their need for drugs."
What to do: Be on the alert for other signs of alcohol and substance abuse. Check the liquor cabinet and make a note of liquid levels in each bottle; you might even taste the contents to see if they've been watered down. Go through bathroom and kitchen cabinets and empty them of any prescription and over-the-counter medicines that might tempt an abuser. For prescriptions in current use, count the pills so you can check if doses go missing. Hide medications in a safe place or -- if your loved one doesn't need them right now -- take them home with you. Keep prescription receipts and labels in a safe place, so the caregiver can't call in refills without your knowledge.
If your caregiver was hired through an agency, report all unexplained absences and discuss the situation with the agency. If the caregiver has a history of this type of behavior with previous clients, the agency should be proactive about assigning you a new caregiver. If the caregiver was hired independently, have a frank discussion and set boundaries. Explain that you require 24 hours advance notice if he or she has to miss work, and another unplanned absence is going to be grounds for dismissal. Then stand firm. The caregiver will almost certainly use illness as the excuse and protest that illnesses come on suddenly, but don't get sucked into that debate.
While this is happening, take all necessary precautions to protect your loved one's cash and financial records, since a caregiver with a drinking or drug problem is a risk and a disgruntled former caregiver can be a threat.