Using the Good, Bad and Ugly to Move the Needle on Elder Financial Exploitation
Anne W. Larkin, Wells Fargo Aging Client Services Risk Relationship Leader
Americans received numerous wake-up calls this year – some hopeful, many dreadful and many lighting a path for further work. COVID curtailed many “normal” activities with school, shopping, restaurants, sports, travel and leisure. We learned to function remotely and even adjusted to being unable to visit love ones in hospitals and long term care facilities. These challenges though were often interwoven with the increased need for cybersecurity with our electronic financial transactions. Government agencies warned of increased financial scams and sophistication of the fraudsters, which unfortunately also heavily impacted our elders and vulnerable adults.
Wells Fargo and other financial institutions spend large sums annually to secure their electronic networks and provide call centers for on-line customers. Still people lost money to imposters of government agencies, malware attached to hyperlinks and telephone promises of COVID tests, protective gear and cures. Additionally, financial institutions reported unethical caregivers and others who improperly gained electronic access to elders’ accounts or provided fraudulent powers of attorney to liquidate customer assets.
Once the assets are gone, they are rarely recovered and never remade. Agencies may seek criminal charges such as recent ones involving a $26 million fraudulent CDs scheme impacting many retired customers at multiple financial institutions. Occasionally, the financial industry is able to recapture some wired assets before the fraudsters withdraw them, but earlier interaction is needed. Without stronger commitments to share information about suspected elder fraud situations and educate the public, fraudsters continue to use fear and confusion to obtain immediate transfers of assets.
Currently, only 30 states grant broker/dealers a safe harbor to temporarily hold transactions or disbursements. The holds create time to review a questionable situation and seek court intervention when necessary. More concerning, only a handful of states extend this tool to other parts of the financial industry, namely banks who similarly need time when questionable situations arise. Increased customer use of Venmo, Zelle and Apple Pay illustrates how important “report and hold” protections can be when a 96-year old suddenly makes 12 payments in two hours and eliminates her life savings. Fraudsters also use on-line loan approvals, home equity advances and other asset sources beyond those in brokerage accounts. The legislative language likewise needs to expand to provide time for review of other accounts and contacts. We need to ensure that privacy laws work together with investigating and reporting requirements in order to stop suspicious elder exploitation. Only with time and information can a financial institution determine that the senior knows the person receiving the transferred funds or understands the impacts of liquidating a retirement account to invest in an unproven, sure-hit scheme.
Supporting financial autonomy is a shared value but once an elder customer is victimized, the victim often falls prey again. Sadly, people fail to set financial guardrails to protect their assets and erroneously believe them to be immune to fraudster antics. Without legislative safe harbors or authorizing trusted contacts, financial institutions may exit problematic customer relationships. That decision, however, only pushes a potential problem down the road and never sends the message that elder financial exploitation is not welcome there.
Together we can continue to move the needle. The pandemic prompts us to build stronger financial protections. We need earlier warning information, a simpler web-based reporting process replacing outdated fax machines and in-person processes, and expanded safe harbors for the entire financial industry. Together we can send the message that the estimated $30+ billion in annual elder fraud losses will be tolerated no longer.
[Wells Fargo established the Aging Client Services group in 2019 to extend its efforts to protect elder and vulnerable customers across all lines of business. Wells Fargo is committed to actively reporting suspected elder financial abuse, training its 260,000 team members and customers (see Protecting Those You Love ) and increasing the legislative and regulatory tools available to the financial industry through its government relations group. Further inquiries can be directed to AgingClientServices@wellsfargo.com.]