By Laine Crosby
A senior citizen approached a teller at the Granbury branch of First Financial Bank N.A., Abilene, Texas, and asked to obtain a $4,500 cashier’s check drawn against a check she had deposited the previous day.
In response to questions from the teller, the customer said that she had received a letter stating she would win a large cash prize if she sent $4,500 to the sender. The teller explained that the letter sounded like a scam and that other customers had received similar fraudulent communications.
The teller also explained that a hold had been put on the previous deposit and money was not yet available for withdrawal. Thankfully, through the involvement of the teller, the customer was able to avoid a common scam targeting the elderly.
The federal financial institution regulatory agencies have recognized that banks can play a significant role in preventing and detecting elder financial exploitation, and First Financial Bank (assets: $5.8 billion) has taken the lead in this area in its community.
Through employee training and partnerships with law enforcement and community organizations, First Financial Bank is proactively exposing financial scams. Not only has the bank been able to prevent losses to date in excess of $1 million, but it has given seniors and their families peace of mind.
The program also helps to differentiate the bank as an institution that cares much about the financial well-being of its customers.
Earlier this year, the bank received an ABA Community Commitment Award for recognition of its work in the category of “Protecting Older Americans.”
The financial exploitation education program
Financial exploitation is the most common form of elder abuse. Older individuals with retirement savings, accumulated home equity and other significant assets, make attractive targets for unscrupulous family members, caregivers, financial advisers and fiduciaries (such as guardians and those with power of attorney)—as well as outright scam artists. The elderly are especially vulnerable due to social isolation, cognitive decline, physical disability, health problems, or the recent loss of a partner, family member or friend.
Training is the key that enables First Financial employees to become familiar with customers and their account activity and to spot behavior that signals financial abuse.
By utilizing their highly trained frontline employees, providing information to potential victims and family members, and calling for immediate law enforcement assistance, the bank can often stop fraudulent activity before any money leaves the customer’s account.
It’s all part of the bank’s Financial Exploitation Education Program, and it’s been immensely successful. The program is also serving as a benchmark for other financial institutions.
The program, which started as a partnership with the city of Abilene, the Abilene Police Department, Adult Protective Services and the Better Business Bureau, was created by the bank’s executive leadership team under the direction of CEO, F. Scott Dueser. This top-down initiative has several core dynamics:
- Employee training and executive-level support. Training management developed a comprehensive financial exploitation education strategy and materials for the community as well as training required for employees at every level of the bank.
- Community education. The bank provides the community with 1-hour workshops, including a 15- to 20-minute presentation about how to protect against fraudulent activity, followed by a question-and-answer session. Bank employees speak regularly to churches, senior citizen centers, retirement centers and civic groups such as Rotary and Kiwanis.
- Social media channels. Utilizing social media, email marketing and other digital channels, the bank provides updates about the latest scams and schemes relating to the financial exploitation of the elderly. The bank’s posts to Facebook and Twitter skew heavily toward consumer fraud protection and awareness of financial exploitation of the elderly. The bank created YouTube videos with bank executives talking about the institution’s efforts to prevent financial fraud. An education Web portal was developed that features shareable content about the bank’s fraud-prevention initiatives and provides helpful tips on recognizing and preventing fraud.
- Law enforcement partners. The bank partners with local law enforcement and social service agencies. Bank employees can connect directly with a police department detective that specializes in financial fraud and abuse whenever they suspect a customer may be a victim. The detective may speak with potential victims and possibly take legal action at the time of an attempted transaction.
- Employee recognition. Employees who intercede on behalf of a customer or the bank are given recognition through a program called Fraud Busters. This program recognizes the work of bank employees who stop fraudulent transactions before the money leaves the bank. Recognition comes in the form of a companywide email that showcases the employee by name and explains how the fraudulent activity was detected and what action was taken. Since May 1, 2014, 61 bank employees have been recognized as Fraud Busters.
Another example of the program in action: A senior officer at the bank’s Mineral Wells office received an email request from an established customer for a wire transfer. The officer forwarded the request to a personal banker. The personal banker was suspicious about the request because the email asked that a rush be put on the transfer—but also stated that the customer would be unavailable by telephone all day.
The personal banker followed bank procedures and contacted the customer, who confirmed that she had not sent such an email and did not want to wire any money. The bank employee’s attention to detail and adherence to procedures prevented a $15,000 loss to the customer.
The program is designed to be leveraged by other banks and organizations, and is scalable. The bank has now implemented the program in all 12 of its regions, which cover a geographic area of more than 700 miles in width, and continues to provide information publicly on the latest scams, and best preventative tools and practices.
The bank has promoted its anti-fraud initiatives through lobby posters, brochures and print ads.
First Financial has garnered praise on the local and national level for its unique program. And best of all, it has helped people in the community.
Upon hearing the news that the teller at First Financial in Granary prevented her mother from falling prey to a $4,500 scam, the daughter was so grateful that she posted on Facebook, “Big Shout out to First Financial Bank on 377 in Granbury!”
The post has received more than 600 likes and comments.
Laine Crosby is the editor of ABA Bank Compliance magazine.