Financial advisors will need more training in psychology in coming years to help protect clients—especially the elderly—from financial abuse, says Dr. Erika Rasure, assistant professor of business and financial services at Maryville University in St. Louis.

Elder financial abuse often accompanies other types of mistreatment of the elderly, such as physical and emotional abuse, and can be so subtle that the victim does not realize he or she is being abused, says Rasure, a practitioner in the relatively new specialty of financial therapy, which draws from various fields of study including behavioral economics, personal finance, psychology, and marriage and family therapy.

Rasure makes a case that financial advisors need to be able to identify the signs of abuse and talk the client through to a solution.

“Abuse in and of itself is a complex situation,” she says. “It is not likely that the abuse is just financial—the financial abuse is most likely at the intersection of emotional and even physical abuse. Abuse is often covert and it takes an emotional toll as well as a financial one.”

She adds that an untrained financial advisor with no background in psychology may not be able to detect subtle clues of trouble.

During a deep, empathetic conversation with a client, an astute advisor can determine whether a person feels in control of his or her financial situations, Rasure says, noting that the relationship with the client has to be more than just transactional. “Financial advisors need a deep understanding of their clients and should go with their gut reactions when facing these situations.”

If financial abuse is suspected, the advisor should not confront the client directly. Instead, the advisor should ask for details about a particular situation.

“Tell the client you are curious about why the bank account is being depleted or ask the client to explain why a certain check was written,” Rasure says. “This approach introduces the client to the idea that there might be something wrong. Financial abuse is insidious, and many people are uncomfortable talking about money.”

In addition to having some training in psychology, she notes, advisors should have one or two psychologists who can be called on for help.

It is difficult to determine how many elderly people are financially abused each year because so much of the crime goes unreported, but the National Council on Aging estimates $36 billion a year is lost to senior fraud and abuse. The AARP Public Policy Institute says one in five older Americans falls victim to financial exploitation every year, and the average victim loses more than $120,000 for each instance of abuse.

Awareness of elder financial abuse is growing. More business schools now teach how to spot it and what to do about it. The Securities and Exchange Commission recently held a roundtable discussion about preventing or recognizing exploitation. Roundtable participants noted that the abuse is often perpetrated by a relative or friend of the victim.

“Among the things that keep me up at night … is the fact that every day there are bad people out there targeting the elder community,” said SEC Chairman Jay Clayton during the discussion.

Last spring, the Senior Safe Act was signed into law to give advisors some protection against lawsuits if they report suspected abuse and turn out to be wrong.

“Members of the older population are targeted not only because they have accumulated $18 trillion in assets, but also because they are more likely to suffer from problems with memory and judgment, making them vulnerable to fraud,” AARP says.