By Deb StewartFor seniors, the COVID-19 crisis presents numerous threats. As health authorities remind seniors to isolate as much as they can, that arrangement itself can make them vulnerable to a host of financial scams at home.
“A basic rule is that predators seize on disruption,” says Paul Greenwood, a retired San Diego deputy district attorney and former head of an elder abuse prosecution unit who has won convictions in more than 700 senior fraud cases.
“Forced isolation has created unprecedented disruption. A major concern during this time is for people in long term care and assisted living facilities. With no access for family members or friends there is free reign for in-house perpetrators. With little oversight, and stresses on staffing, facility managers may have little incentive to detect and report perpetrators. Even for those seniors living independently there is greater risk.
“In a worsening economy you have more desperate people looking for ways to steal. Isolation increases vulnerability,” Greenwood adds. “This creates a perfect storm of vulnerable victims and desperate perpetrators. This places even more responsibility on banks (and family or friends) to look out for these seniors.”
What actions do these warnings imply? Lots of important information is available on how to help seniors avoid scams, including resources from the ABA Foundation and a recent ABA Bank Compliance article by Laine Crosby. But we also need to focus on family members of seniors, building awareness that financial scammers are targeting seniors and that there are ways to protect them.
Banks can use their websites, social media or even direct communication from branch employees who are aware of families with seniors in need of extra assistance to inform their communities on common threats. Here are some useful tips for banks:
- View-only access is an important option to consider in some instances to protect vulnerable senior relatives’ bank, investment and credit card accounts.
- Review credit reports with senior customers looking for any unexpected activity.
- Talk about the likelihood and nature of fraud during this period. Share information on scams. The “grandparent” scam is seeing an uptick. Explain it and assure them that all of their family members are safe and none require money for medical procedures/ hospital bills, help returning from a foreign country or to get out of jail. (Learn more about how one bank proactively stops senior fraud from a recent ABA podcast.)
- Make seniors aware of a recent Secret Service warnings describing a stimulus scam where fraudsters, posing as U.S. Treasury officials, contact and direct potential victims to a website to register to receive a stimulus check. The websites are designed to collect victims’ personally identifiable information, bank account information, email addresses, passwords and more. Many similar scams are emerging, so it’s important for seniors to understand that they do not have to do anything to receive their stimulus check, or any other government payment.
- Ask if they have made any new investments or have been asked to make any. Ask specifically about whether they have been asked to “not tell anyone” or “don’t tell your banker,” or been told they are under a “gag order.”
- And let them know that you and their bank are there to help
And as we move into upcoming phases of our response to COVID 19, banks seeing success in senior fraud prevention are focusing on four key areas:
1. Community outreach and education
Bank of the Rockies, based in Montana, approaches outreach with one key guiding principle.
“We need to talk about it,” says Jennell Huff, universal banker II, seniors programs lead. “We need to get the right information to the right people. Seniors are busy, scheduled people who want to stick to their routines. So we go where routines are likely to take them—senior centers, homemaker groups in churches, senior communities. We recognize that each group is different and that you can’t address the whole topic of fraud in 60 minutes.
The bank’s CONversations About Cons series includes simple presentation outlines and materials on a wide variety of topics. The result is relevant, customer-driven conversations.
“The outlines may be seasonally driven—tax time, summer fly-by-night paver season—or may address anytime topics like grandparent scams,” she adds. “Great materials to support this series are available from the ABA Foundation’s Safe Banking for Seniors program, as well as through the Federal Trade Commission.” Bank of the Rockies was recognized by the Foundation with a 2017 Community Commitment Award for protecting older Americans.
Old National Bank in Evansville, Ind. took the senior fraud message to the broader community through their Money Safety for Seniors program. What began in November 2019 as an hour-long program in partnership with a local TV station has expanded to a community-focused program in all its markets.
Community groups can sign up for presentations focused on preventing senior fraud at the bank’s website. says Ben Joergens, Old National VP and financial empowerment director. Old National regularly shares internal information about common as well as new scams with bank employees, as well as on social media and on their website, building in personal (but anonymous) examples of dealing with dementia, being a financial caregiver, service scams and others. A call-in helpline is now available to both customers and non-customers.
2. Employee training
Croghan Colonial Bank, headquartered in Fremont, Ohio views focusing on fraud as a key value. “Training isn’t the right term,” says Missy Walker, VP for retail operations. “Staying current on fraud detection and prevention needs to be a part of what we do every day.
The bank has designated select employees as “senior champions” who possess a passion for senior issues in each of its branches. They work with staff on the latest fraud situations, using tools including role-playing. Walker adds that the bank also focuses on identifying declining mental capacity among customers.
Here’s an example: A senior comes into the branch with a companion. The companion is open about the fact that the senior has dementia, and the companion repeatedly reminds the senior of where she is. “The [companion]asks that we notarize a power of attorney immediately to help with the situation,” Walker adds. “The branch associate recognizes potential fraud and denies the request. That associate recommended a policy change—now implemented—to no longer notarize any power of attorney [but]rather to refer them to internal legal. These situations are shared with all of our branches and reinforced through staff discussion.”
Bank of the Rockies has begun a relationship with the Alzheimer’s Association for both philanthropy and training. “They offer training tracks on how to identify potential dementia and how to talk to customers about it,” says Huff. “We hope to add these to our employee training in the near future.”
3. Relationships with law enforcement
Procedures vary as to steps to take when fraud is detected. Starting with branch management, quickly moving to internal security/risk/fraud and, depending on the institution, filing a suspicious activity report and reporting to adult protective services or the police.
But involvement with local law enforcement goes well beyond enforcing the law. At Bank of the Rockies, an APS representative visits each branch each year to provide training. Members of the police and sheriff’s departments often join in Old National Bank’s community presentations.
A sheriff’s department in northern Ohio was seeing growth in senior fraud cases. Looking for tools to inform the public, their research led them to the ABA Foundation’s FinEdLink webpage, connecting non-bankers with bankers who lead Safe Banking for Seniors presentations. The sheriff’s department connected with Croghan Colonial Bank, and now the bank and sheriff’s department offer joint education sessions.
“The sheriff helps us to prioritize markets based on reported fraud activity,” Walker says. “Having the sheriff presenting with us brings a sharp sense of reality to the situations we want to make sure they understand. Sheriffs in other towns have now expressed an interest in copying the program.”
4. Product and procedure considerations
Seniors do not want to lose access to their bank accounts. But family members should be monitoring those accounts in many instances, senior advocates advise. With shared access accounts, often called “read-only,” a family member can watch the account without adding additional signers,” says Joergens of Old National. These are not joint accounts, which can be used by exploiters to clean out seniors’ accounts.
“If someone comes in with a power of attorney request and says, ‘I need to get this done right now,’ it’s likely a scammer,” warns Walker. Very specific policies around powers of attorney are critical—whether that means not notarizing them, always sending them to your legal department for review or some other approach, she explains.
“Make it policy to fill out suspicious activity reports,” Huff adds. “Senior fraud is one of the most under-reported crimes. The more we report, the more accurate the numbers and the more important to lawmakers.”
Sam Kunjukunju, director of bank community engagement for the ABA Foundation, notes that as America is aging, the time to act is now.
“Every day 10,000 baby boomers are turning 65 and individuals 85 and older are among the fastest growing population segments in the country,” he says. “In just 10 years, one out of every five people in the United States will be retirement age. Fraudsters know this and will continue to target the nation’s older Americans. So, it’s incumbent upon everyone, both bankers and non-bankers alike, to be vigilant and proactively work together to protect our older parents, grandparents, and elderly neighbors. Just as it takes a village to raise our children, it takes a community to safeguard our seniors.”