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Banks watch for scams on seniors

Eileen JoyceWestamerica Bank teller Kelly Undercoffer helps Robert Snell with a series of transactions at the bank Friday.
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When it comes to protecting seniors from financial scams, banks are on the front line.

Tellers can spot the warning signs of a scam – whether it’s a payment to a bogus Canadian lottery scam or a new person hanging around with the senior when they come to the bank.

Some area banks and Nevada County departments are trying to ensure clues don’t go unnoticed that could tip off bank employees to financial scams against their older customers – financial elder abuse, in official terms.



During a June luncheon, Jonelle JerramParker, senior victim advocate for the county’s Elder Abuse Advocacy and Outreach Program, asked for the help of area financial institutions in fighting financial elder abuse. Eleven of 14 area banks and credit unions showed up, said JerramParker.

JerramParker is organizing training sessions for bank tellers to help them recognize signs of elder abuse. She plans to hold four or five of them in the next month.




Staff training sessions at Westamerica Bank in Grass Valley presented some common scam scenarios and advice on how tellers and other bank employees can prevent financial abuse against their customers.

One warning sign would be customers who come in with new “best friends,” particularly if the friend is verbally abusive and if the client appears nervous.

But privacy laws make banks reluctant cops.

Teresa Carrigan, assistant vice president for Westamerica, said banks are in an uneasy spot. “Where do you draw the line between confidentiality and protecting someone?” she asked.

With financial elder abuse cases increasingly turning up in the news, Carrigan contacted county Adult Protective Services to line up training for her employees.

Westamerica employees were trained in June on what to do when someone withdraws a large amount of cash, what could be considered financial abuse and other issues.

The training also helped resolve questions on what should be reported to authorities, said Carrigan. “I know my staff is much more confident now,” she said.

JerramParker said some of the bank employees had seen the scenarios before. “They’re seeing this in the banks, obviously.”

By keeping an eye out for problems, banks can play a big role in preventing financial elder abuse, said JerramParker.

Because they have a relationship with their customers, banks are in a position to notice changes in behavior and recognize signs of abuse.

Seniors living alone can be at particular risk if they come to rely on help from con artists.

Each year, thousands of elderly and dependent adults are targeted for financial exploitation. The victims are often socially isolated, dependent on others for assistance, or easily intimidated. Banks are in a key position to spot that exploitation, say people who believe banks should report the abuse.

Despite that, banking organizations opposed recent state legislation that would have required banks to report elder abuse.

JerramParker said that banks have been reluctant to report suspected crimes to local law enforcement because of concerns they might violate clients’ confidentiality.

The California Banking Association and California Bank and Trust were among the opponents of Assembly Bill 109, a 2001 measure that would have required banks to report suspected elder abuse, legislative records show.

Banking industry opponents of the legislation cited a conflict between federal and state laws governing the right to privacy and the reporting requirements.

The association said the bill, which never made it out of committee, would have hit banks with a double-edged legal sword – lawsuits for invasion of privacy if banks report the crimes, and lawsuits if they don’t, according to legislative records.

Too much security – and delays – could also annoy customers.

“It’s a real balancing act,” said JerramParker. “But at some point, it’s important to prevent these kinds of crimes.”

Financial elder abuse hasn’t emerged as a major issue for a trade organization of smaller, independent banks. It’s not on the agenda of the California Independent Bankers Association’s annual meeting next week.

But it is an important issue, one that Craig Hudson, executive director of the association, said he would bring up at the meeting.

“These older customers are our best customers so we would want to do everything we could so they didn’t get ripped off,” said Hudson.


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