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Banks on the front lines when it comes to detecting elder abuse

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — A lot of older people don’t bank online. They prefer to visit the bank branch, where they might even have a favorite teller.

That means employees at banks, credit unions, and other financial institutions are on the front lines when it comes to being able to spot possible financial abuse of the elderly.

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They might notice something fishy about withdrawals from a customer’s account, such as a change in the amounts or unusual transactions.

Yet they sometimes worry that reporting their suspicions to law enforcement might violate the customer’s privacy rights.

Last month, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and seven other agencies issued guidance to banks and other institutions, saying that they should not hesitate to disclose a customer’s personal information if fraud or other illegal activity is suspected.

A federal privacy law known as the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act allows common-sense exceptions to allow reporting of possible fraud or unauthorized transactions.

‘‘Older Americans are all too often victims of financial exploitation,’’ said Richard Cordray, director of the consumer bureau.

‘‘They make attractive targets because they often have higher household wealth — whether it is in retirement savings or home equity.’’

Elderly people may be less able to recognize financial exploitation and fraud, the most common form of elder abuse, Cordray said.

Elder abuse includes the illegal or improper use of an older adult’s funds, property, or other assets.

‘‘A lifetime of savings can be wiped out by falling prey to a scam artist,’’ Cordray said.

‘‘Employees at financial institutions can be instrumental in preventing such fraud.’’

When seniors fall victim to theft by a trusted family member or a scam, they may be too embarrassed or too frail to pursue legal action — so it is critical that other s look out for them, Cordray said.

Here are some possible signs of financial abuse of older adults, from the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network:

 Erratic or unusual banking transactions, or changes in banking patterns.

 Frequent large withdrawals, including daily maximum currency withdrawals from an ATM.

 Sudden insufficient fund activity.

 Uncharacteristic nonpayment for services, which may indicate a loss of funds or loss of access to funds.

 Debit transactions that are inconsistent for the older adult.

 Uncharacteristic attempts to wire large sums of money.

 The closing of CD or other accounts without regard to the penalties.

 A caregiver or other individual who shows excessive interest in the older adult’s finances or assets, does not allow the older adult to speak for himself, or is reluctant to leave the side of the older adult during conversations with other.

 The older adult shows an unusual degree of fear or submissiveness toward a caregiver or expresses a fear of eviction or nursing home placement if money is not given to a caretaker.

 The financial institution is unable to speak directly with the older adult, despite repeated attempts.

 A new caretaker, relative, or friend suddenly begins conducting financial transactions on behalf of the older adult without proper documentation.

 The older adult moves away from existing relationships and toward new associations with other ‘‘friends’’ or strangers.

 The older adult’s financial management changes suddenly, such as through a change of power of attorney to a new individual.

 The older adult lacks knowledge about his or her financial status, or shows a sudden reluctance to discuss financial matters.

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