It happens without a gun, and often even without a computer mouse, but nowadays one of the fastest growing types of fraud is elder financial abuse, which the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau tabs as a $2.9 billion annual problem, and it is one that may only get bigger as the 40+ million group of elderly Americans daily grows in number.
The good news for credit unions: many of them now are taking a significant role in helping safeguard their elderly members’ accounts. A belief in many quarters is that financial institutions are ideally positioned to notice elder fraud early – and that may lead to stopping it earlier.
Case in point: the $1.2 billion MECU in Baltimore now trains every employee in what to look out for with elder fraud. The online class takes around a half hour, said Dorothea Stierhoff,senior public relations manager.
She added that employees are taught the common elder fraud scenarios and – under Maryland’s mandatory reporting requirement – they are taught they must fill out an incident report that goes to MECU’s fraud group. That group, in turn, contacts the member to investigate and it usually will also pass the report onto law enforcement for review.
At MECU “not that many reports have been filed,” said Stierhoff, but she added that MECU employees liked being part of a potential solution to a big problem.
Cross country, Kim Withers, CEO of Meridian Trust Federal Credit Union, a $274 million institution in Cheyenne, Wyo., now requires all employees with member contact (“about 75% of our staff,” said Withers) to undergo training in elder fraud.
“I took the training myself,” said Withers. “It teaches you to what to look out, what are the red flags of elder abuse.”
She added that many Meridian Trust employees had personal family experience with elder fraud – she counts herself in that group – and so they are eager to be on the lookout for possible fraud.
Another state with legislation that requires financial institutions to report possible elder fraud is Washington – where the law passed in 2010 – and at the $151 million Peninsula Community Federal Credit Union in Shelton, vice president for human resources Gail Ryan said that every employee goes through it.
“Our employees care a lot about members – they welcome the ability to look after vulnerable members. The training raises awareness. We teach them risk warning signs,” Ryan said.
Meantime, at the $1 billion Kitsap Credit Union in Bremerton, Wash., outreach coordinator Cathy Brorson said her institution, partnered with the Washington State Department of Financial Institutions, has been offering a series of seminars titled “Elder Investment Fraud and Financial Exploitation:”.
“We pack the rooms wherever we give this. The sessions are very well attended,” said Brorson.
Hundreds of other credit unions around the nation also are taking fraud education directly to the vulnerable populations and the payoff, suggested Brorson, is that when seniors increase their knowledge of what the common frauds are and where they can seek help, “they’ll be fine.”
One big change – likely to impact many credit unions – is that more states are enacting legislation (a la the landmark Maryland law) that put an onus of responsibility on financial institutions to be alert to possible elder fraud and to report it to law enforcement.
In North Carolina, for instance, Lauren Whaley, director of legislative and regulatory Affairs at the North Carolina Credit Union League, said draft legislation is in the legislature and, she added, “it will pass. Our members very much want this to pass.”
A reason legislation is necessary: “Banks are terrified of getting involved. They are so afraid of being sued,” said Carl G. Archer, an attorney in Hamilton, N.J. That same hesitancy would apply to credit unions but legislation that mandates staying alert to possible elder fraud appears to remove much of the fear.
Perhaps the most optimistic commentary on controlling elder fraud comes from Filene, the Wisconsin think tank, which has piloted deployments of what it calls “Senior Sentry,” an algorithm that integrates with an institution’s core system and flags transactions it believes may be fraudulent.
Here is how it works, as documented in a Filene write up: “An alert was received on debit card transaction activity during high-risk hours. Around 1:00 a.m. there was an ATM withdrawal on an 87-year-old member’s account. This is not typically the time of day when most seniors use the ATM. Video of the ATM showed that a young male made the withdrawal using the member’s card. The card was shut down by the credit union until it was able to contact the member to verify that the member had authorized the transaction. The member had allowed his grandson to use the card, but this gave the credit union the opportunity to speak with the member about the risks of sharing his PIN with anyone, including family members.”
The big Filene idea: because it has access to a member’s transaction data, a credit union is ideally positioned to detect fraud, even before family members and caretakers might, because the core system can be queried on a daily basis.
Matt Davis, director of innovation at Filene, readily admitted that the algorithm is “imperfect. It needs works.
But he said Filene is looking for partners who may want to assist in furthering the project because, ultimately, closely reviewing all account data just may be the surest way to nip elder fraud.