Just one year ago, the U.S. Government Accountability Office reported that it could not find any federal requirements for banks to train tellers and others to spot or report elder financial exploitation.
To be sure, many banks and credit unions try to prevent such fraud through various efforts. But increasingly, banks are being told that their employees are part of the solution on the front lines to stopping financial abuse.
Federal regulators joined forces Tuesday to issue guidance to clarify that privacy rules don't trump common sense for reporting suspected elder abuse to law enforcement officials or state adult protective services agencies.
"Older Americans are all too often victims of financial exploitation," said Richard Cordray, director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. "They make attractive targets because they often have higher household wealth - whether it is in retirement savings or home equity."
Families caring for older relatives know too well about the constant fear that some outsider, or maybe even a relative up to no good, might find a way to get a senior's ATM card and PIN.
Or maybe a friendly-sounding con artist can convince an older adult to wire $4,000 to cover taxes for his or her so-called winnings on a big sweepstakes. And maybe those calls about a big sweepstakes win just keep coming and coming - and the senior keeps on sending money.
Ann Langford, program manager for the Area Agency on Aging 1-B, a non-profit that supports services for older and disabled adults in metro Detroit, said in the tough economic times some family members have sought to fix their own finances by coercing an older relative to hand over cash.
"They may have a loved one who has money," Langford said.
She noted that banks often want to protect their customers, but she said it may help to have the privacy regulations clarified so some tellers know what's allowed.
A "No Excuse for Elder Abuse" campaign was launched last March in the metro Detroit area and included a tip that involved asking a bank manager to train tellers on how to detect elder financial abuse.
"It's a stealth crime that just needs to have a spotlight on it," Langford said.
SIGNS TO WATCH FOR
What are some signs that might trigger a suspicious-activity report at a financial institution? Regulators said it could be lots of stops at the ATM for withdrawals that hit the daily maximum allowed on that account. Or a sudden onslaught of bounced checks, which might indicate an unexpected loss of money.
Are there debit transactions that don't seem to make sense for an older adult? Is the older adult wiring large sums of money out of the blue? Did the elderly customer show up at the bank window and close a certificate of deposit, even though a large penalty would be paid for early withdrawal before that CD matured?
Why the guidance now? Cordray and other regulators said financial institutions had expressed concern that they couldn't take action without violating the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, which establishes how and when a financial institution can disclose non-public personal information to third parties not affiliated with the institution.
Richard Riese, senior vice president of the American Bankers Association's Center for Regulatory Compliance, said the guidance helps confirm privacy rule interpretations that banks have been relying on to report elder financial abuse.
Some other possible signs of abuse include when the bank is unable to speak directly with the older adult, despite repeated attempts to contact him or her. Maybe a new friend suddenly begins handling the money for a senior without proper documentation.
Financial exploitation is defined as illegally or improperly using an older adult's money, property or other assets. Older adults can lose money through exploitation by relatives, caregivers, scam artists, financial advisers, home-repair contractors, guardians and others.
But sometimes, there's a little hope that not every scam out there will successfully tarnish a senior's golden years. Debbie Matz, board chair of the National Credit Union Administration, said some credit unions have had success at being watchdogs for their customers' money and prevented elder financial fraud.
One credit union in Colorado, for example, stopped an 85-year-old from losing $50,000 to one financial exploitation trap.
Stopping the money from ever being handed over to an abusive relative or a con artist is essential. Some seniors are too upset or frail or just too embarrassed to take legal action. And the scammers - whether they're down-on-their-luck relatives or con artists overseas - know that one too well.
TIPS FOR AVOIDING SCAMS AND WHERE TO FIND HELP
• The National Center on Elder Abuse lists government agencies in individual states that can help.
• Some seniors have lost money to the "Grandparents Scam" where someone phones or e-mails and pretends to be a grandchild in trouble in Canada or overseas. The elderly person might be convinced and may wire money or send a prepaid debit card to help.
• Seniors need to beware of "freebies." The Better Business Bureau serving eastern Michigan reports that scammers now are offering seniors $3,000 in "free groceries savings certificates" along with a free medical alert bracelet. The scam may lure people to give away bank account information.
• Con artists also may attend the funeral service of a stranger claiming that the deceased had an outstanding debt with them, according to Better Business Bureau reports.
• Seniors may be targets of reverse mortgage scams. The Federal Bureau of Investigation's website noted that victims are offered free homes, investment opportunities and foreclosure or refinance assistance. They are also used as straw buyers in property-flipping scams. Seniors are frequently targeted through local churches and investment seminars, as well as television, radio, billboard and mailer advertisements.