The front line in the fight against fraud of elders

An older woman walked into a bank in a small town on Texas’s Gulf Coast. She wanted to see if a $1,500 check she had deposited the day before had cleared. She got to talking with the tellers and informed them that once the funds cleared, she was going to mail a check for $1,400 back to the sender, whom she had never met.

The tellers sniffed a scam. They suspected the deposited check would bounce, leaving the customer out $1,400. A call to the other bank verified the scam, the checks were stopped and the customer was protected —all because two bankers took the time to chat with their customer and look out for fraud.

ADVERTISEMENT

Our friend F. Scott Dueser, who leads First Financial Bank in Texas, shared this story as part of a trend affecting his older customers. It is a great example of how banks, citizens and local law enforcement can work together to protect America’s seniors.

Never has there been so much opportunity for seniors. Americans are living longer than ever. A 65-year-old today can on average expect to live past 84 — six years
longer than in 1950 — leaving more time to spend with kids and grandkids and take on meaningful retirement activities.

However, with these opportunities come risks. Some seniors worry they will outlive their assets. Others, like Dueser’s customer, are hit by sophisticated scams or even defrauded by family members. Elder financial abuse, which costs consumers more than $3 billion a year in theft, is only going to get worse if left unchecked. Due to their relative generational wealth, among other factors, older Americans are targets for criminals.

We all have a role to play in stopping elder fraud. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) is tackling this threat head-on with free tools. Money Smart for Older Adults
helps educate and empower seniors and their caregivers to avoid being victimized. The bureau regularly issues advisories to alert consumers about scams and frauds.

Millions of Americans manage money or property for a loved one who is unable to pay bills or make financial decisions. The CFPB’s Managing Someone Else’s Money guides provide tips on how to do this and spot scams. Just this month, the bureau released new versions of these guides to make it even easier for caregivers to follow their state’s unique rules and find the help they need close to home. Likewise, the American Bankers Association Foundation recently launched a campaign called Safe Banking for Seniors to help bankers educate seniors and their caregivers.

Banks, too, can use their fraud expertise and trusted relationships to protect their older customers. Dueser’s bank stopped nearly $1 million in fraudulent transactions in the past year, whether by calling the cops on a young woman stealing from her great-grandmother or by getting money back from a company swindling funds through a phony real estate sale. “If people know what is happening to them, it makes a big difference,” Dueser said recently at the White House Conference on Aging. “The more we can talk about fraud, the less we’ll have.” Banks can also help their customers by making available the free educational tools the CFPB is developing.

In our experience, as law enforcement officials at both the state and federal levels, we know it is critical for legal authorities to have all the key information. Seniors can protect themselves and bankers can help stop frauds at the individual level, but we still must rely on government to go after criminals in court, offer appropriate services to victims and provide a legal framework for deterring fraud.

There’s a role for every American in protecting seniors from fraud and exploitation. We all have parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, neighbors and friends who could become victims of financial abuse. We need to listen carefully and pay attention for signs of exploitation or risky financial decisions.

Working together as citizens, bankers and government officials, we can protect our seniors from fraud. By reducing the financial risks, we can expand the opportunities of aging.

Cordray, director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, is a former attorney general of Ohio. Keating, president and CEO of the American Bankers Association, is a former governor of Oklahoma and FBI agent.