Seeing, Saying and Doing Something About Elder Fraud

by Rob Nichols

Odds are your bank has a story that illustrates a disturbing trend affecting older Americans today. Perhaps one of your tellers noticed a regular customer suddenly showing up at the bank with a new “best friend.” Or staff detected unusual activity in an elderly customer’s account, such as large withdrawals or unpaid bills.

These are two of several red flags that can signal elder financial abuse, and banks are increasingly noticing—and reporting—such cases. According to a FinCEN analysis released in December, suspicious activity reports related to elder financial exploitation have increased dramatically in recent years, jumping from 2,000 filings in October 2013 to nearly 7,500 filings in August 2019.

A Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Report issued in February 2019 offers similar statistics and adds that 80 percent of SARs related to elder financial exploitation involved a monetary loss to older adults and/or the institution that filed. The average loss for customers was $34,200, while the average loss to institutions filing was $16,700.

As disheartening as this sounds, there’s actually some positive news amid all the data surrounding elder financial fraud.

The ABA Foundation has documented that good news in its 2019 Older Americans Benchmarking Report. The biennial report shows that banks are going well beyond the “see something, say something” threat mantra and are proactively working to educate and protect their older customers.

It found, for example, that the vast majority (90 percent) of respondent banks now require additional, specialized training for frontline staff. That’s up from 71 percent in 2017. It also found that more banks are reporting suspected elder abuse and fraud to Adult Protective Services, with 81 percent of survey respondents listing that as standard procedure, up from 62 percent in 2017. And more than 60 percent say they now have at least one employee specifically designated to lead efforts on elder financial abuse and fraud prevention.

Banks aren’t just focused on spotting and reporting fraud. They’re also increasingly preventing it by teaching seniors in their communities the art of self-defense. One banker shared how her institution created fraud packets with brief brochures and “scam cards” to educate older customers on schemes and how to report them. Another said his institution developed a brochure for caregivers to help guide conversations on sensitive topics like developing a will or sending duplicate account statements for review. And half of the banks surveyed said they offer in-branch training for older customers on new banking technologies, such as online or mobile banking.

In addition to protecting one of our country’s most vulnerable populations, these efforts demonstrate banks’ commitment to their customers and communities and reflects well on the industry. That’s why I’m making sure policymakers are aware of all banks are doing. It’s also why I’m encouraging more banks to join the fight.

With 10,000 Baby Boomers turning 65 every day (a trend that will last until 2030), and with older Americans holding 70 percent of deposit balances in the U.S., the elder financial fraud threat is bound to get worse before it gets better. But the more bankers are engaged in countermeasures, from educational efforts to fraud monitoring and partnerships with APS, the better off our customers and communities will be.

So for those banks that have room to start or grow their efforts in this area, I offer three simple steps:

  • Read the Older Americans Benchmarking Report. It tells you what banks in your asset range are doing and spotlights innovative programs.
  • Sign up for Safe Banking for Seniors. This ABA Foundation program provides turnkey presentation materials and resources for bankers to use with seniors and caregivers.
  • Enroll in FinEdLink. This is a relatively new service from the foundation that allows us to pair banks with community groups or schools that are interested in having a banker present on age-appropriate personal finance topics, including senior fraud prevention.

All of these resources are free and available at (Undoubtedly your state association has even more, since state associations have been true pioneers in this field). Take advantage of these resources so that fewer crooks will take advantage of your customers.

As one banker in our survey said, the older generation wants so badly to leave a legacy and remain self-sufficient, but they also are so trusting they don’t always see a scam for what it is. “That’s where our role as bankers is so critical as we… help them navigate these difficult situations to ensure their legacies and livelihoods are protected.”