Updated: May 3, 2013 12:14PM
Bank robber Willie Sutton once famously explained that he robbed banks because "that's where the money is." These days it's easier to rob senior citizens. A new survey reports a 20 percent increase in elder abuse since 2000, and a significant portion of that abuse is financial.
Adult Protective Services agencies received 565,747 reports of suspected elder abuse in 2004, and that's said to be only a small fraction of the elder abuse that takes place. About 15 percent of substantiated cases involve financial exploitation. Simply put, about 85,000 cases of financial elder exploitation were reported in 2004.
Now the banking industry is getting together to do something about it. BITS, the business strategy and technology division of the Financial Services Roundtable, has created a "fraud prevention tool kit" designed to help banks educate their employees to protect their senior customers.
"Banks are now focusing on elder-scams," Catherine A. Allen, BITS CEO, says. "While financial institutions are not legally responsible for monitoring potential exploitation of customers, this is an area in which banks can make a positive contribution to the well-being of vulnerable customers."
Defining elder abuse
Financial exploitation is defined as "the illegal or improper use of an elder's funds, property or assets," according to the National Center on Elder Abuse.
That could include cashing a vulnerable adult's checks without authorization or forging a signature. In many elder-scam cases, an older person is deceived into signing residential sales contracts, or even a will. Or the senior could be duped into signing over assets into a conservatorship or guardianship, or giving away financial power of attorney.
What role can banks play in protecting seniors?
BITS says that banks have developed a level of trust with their customers, and often see them on a regular basis, especially seniors who like to visit their financial institution in person. The new program trains bank employees to look for red flags of scams.
*Signatures that look forged or suspicious.
*Out-of-sync check numbers.
*Requests for statements to be sent to a different address, or new signers on an existing account.
*Unusual cash withdrawals in a short period of time.
*Abrupt increases in credit-card activity.
*ATM activity in the account of a homebound senior.
*Vulnerable adult accompanied by a third party to make cash withdrawal.
*Confusion on the part of the senior about financial issues
These might be signs of some well-known elder scams that continue to be inflicted upon each new generation of seniors. For example, there's the "pigeon drop" scam in which the victim puts up "good faith" money in hopes of sharing a portion of a large sum of money that is "found" in the presence of the victim.
The BITS tool kit includes a booklet and power point program for banks to educate employees. Tactics include avoiding confrontation, attempting to separate the vulnerable adult from the individual accompanying him or her, and delaying the suspicious transaction by advising that additional verification is required.
The banking industry is not alone in feeling responsible for seniors who get fleeced, either through direct withdrawals of cash, or transfers of assets.
If you know a senior who is vulnerable, or suspect financial abuse, here are some resources for help: National Center on Elder Abuse (202) 898-2586 or www.elderabusecenter.org. Also: National Adult Protective Services Association (720) 565-0906 or www.apsnetwork.org.
The latter Web site has a "report abuse" button that connects to a map of the United States. If you click on your state, you'll be given local phone numbers to report suspected abuse.
Or you can reach the Eldercare Locator by telephone at (800) 677-1116. Trained operators will refer you to a local agency that can help.
This is a column you might want to clip or print and save. Since you're savvy enough to be reading a personal finance column, you certainly aren't likely to be a victim. But check in on your elderly relatives or neighbors.
Financial elder scams leave very few visible signs of abuse -- until the money runs out. By then it's too late.
And that's The Savage Truth.
Terry Savage is a registered investment adviser.