Strengthen financial institutions' front lines against exploitation of the elderly
One-third of the U.S. population will be at or beyond retirement age within a few years — a fact not lost on criminals wanting to take advantage of the vulnerable elderly, warn Washington's attorney general and the president of the Washington Credit Union League. They argue for a change in the law to help bank and credit-union employees act more effectively with law enforcement if they suspect a customer is being exploited.
Special to The Times
Employees at a local bank suspected something was amiss last December when two women asked to close out — and cash out — a 78-year-old customer's bank account. One presented a marriage license, freshly signed by herself and the senior, who stood by appearing noticeably confused. Alert bank employees notified the police.
The women now face a slew of criminal charges based on what police say was a plot to obtain a quickie marriage to a dementia patient in order to drain his $23,000 bank account.
Employees of the senior's assisted-living facility were unable to prevent the attempted exploitation of their client. Workers at a Bellevue courthouse — and a judge who was hired for $150 to conduct the marriage — didn't stop the suspicious marriage. Where others were unwilling or unable to help, alert tellers ultimately acted to protect a vulnerable adult.
Cases like these have become all too common. The United States is in the midst of huge demographic shifts, with a third of our population reaching retirement age in the next few years. On Jan. 1, 2006, baby boomers began turning 60 at the rate of one every 7.5 seconds.
These changes are not lost on the criminal-minded. In recent years, the Attorney General's Consumer Protection Division and Medicaid Fraud Control Unit have seen a steady increase in the frequency with which fraud-related cases involve the exploitation and abuse of older adults.
For years, banks and credit unions have been on the front lines in the battle to prevent financial exploitation of vulnerable adults. Tellers and branch managers are on guard, observing and reporting the rising number of suspicious transactions by those other than primary account holders.
Local banks and credit unions have also cultivated great working relationships with law-enforcement agencies. In June 2007, banking and credit-union industry leaders joined the Attorney General's Vulnerable Adult Initiative, a coalition to improve protections for seniors and those with disabilities. That work led to the development of a comprehensive bill just introduced to the Legislature by the Attorney General's Office.
The legislation has strong bipartisan support. It's sponsored by Democrats like Sen. Jim Hargrove, D-Hoquiam, and Rep. Al O'Brien, D-Mountlake Terrace, and Republicans, including Sen. Dale Brandland, R-Bellingham, and Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor.
Our proposal calls for training to improve the ability of bank and credit-union employees to identify and report financial exploitation. It allows financial institutions to better share information with law enforcement and to "freeze" an account if skulduggery is strongly suspected. The bill also adds additional penalties for those who prey on our most vulnerable citizens and allows the public to have better access to information about potential caretakers.
The ranks of the vulnerable increasingly include our parents, our siblings and even our adult children. Leaders from the law-enforcement, banking and credit-union communities understand that more must be done to protect those who can't protect themselves. So today we're asking for the Legislature's support of House Bill 1788 and Senate Bill 5639. Together we'll create a better future for those in our charge.
Rob McKenna is Washington state's attorney general. John Annaloro is president and CEO of Washington Credit Union League.
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
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