Maine banks, credit unions launch new program to stop elder financial abuse

Posted Feb. 10, 2014, at 4:13 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Banks and credit unions throughout Maine announced Monday that they are collaborating on a training and public education program designed to stop elder financial abuse where it most often starts: inside the financial institution or at the drive-up window.

Senior$afe, which members of the Maine Council for Elder Abuse Prevention say is the first program of its kind in the country, will help bank and credit union workers identify irregular financial activity that could indicate abuse. The program also will train them how to intervene when necessary.

“Financial institutions can play a critical role in identifying and reporting suspected cases of elder financial exploitation,” said Gov. Paul LePage in a written statement. “Senior$afe will enhance the efforts of bank and credit union employees in assisting seniors who have been victimized and those who may be especially vulnerable.”

Elder financial abuse in Maine, which has the oldest per-capita average age in the country — with many of those older citizens living in rural areas — is as pronounced as it is anywhere. Experts estimate that there are at least 14,000 new reports of elder abuse every year, which could constitute as little as 15 percent of the actual instances of abuse.

Elder financial abuse is typically carried out by a family member, friend or someone else who is trusted by the victim, often someone who has been given financial power of attorney. Forms of abuse can range from someone securing and using a senior citizen’s credit to intimidating the victim into writing checks or handing over cash.

Anne Head, commissioner of the Maine Department of Professional and Financial Regulation, said by the end of this week, there will be 200 people trained to return to their banks and credit unions to share the new knowledge with co-workers.

The training — which will be done through a partnership between the state, Legal Services for the Elderly, and the statewide bankers and credit union associations — involves recognizing the signs of unusual financial activity, such as sudden large withdrawals or a series of checks written to one person.

The response will depend on the circumstances. If the potential victim is alone, it could take the form of a few friendly questions from the teller about sudden large withdrawals. If the potential victim has someone with him or her, tellers would not broach the subject but might refer the situation to authorities, who in turn could open an investigation.

“Financial exploitation, which includes investment fraud and scams, is among the most common forms of elder abuse, costing its victims an estimated $2.9 billion each year across the nation,” said Head. “Maine is fortunate to have financial institutions that value the independence and safety of our seniors.”

Members of the coalition, who presented the Senior$afe program Monday during a news conference in the State House, said the project was made easier last year when several federal government agencies signed an interagency agreement involving the interpretation of the 1999 Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, which includes privacy and confidentiality laws for financial institutions.

The announcement of the Senior$afe program comes just days after Attorney General Janet Mills announced the creation of a task force to examine how to better usher elder financial abuse and exploitation cases through the judicial system. A theme common to both programs is that — in addition to what state agencies and financial organizations are doing — the best way to prevent financial abuse is to educate senior citizens and the public about tools that are available to fight it.

“The office of securities and other state agencies are committed to fighting elder financial exploitation, but our efforts are much more successful when people come forward to report their concerns,” said Maine Security Administrator Judith Shaw, who also co-chairs the Maine Council for Elder Abuse Prevention.

Anyone who suspects that they or someone they know is a victim of any form of elder abuse can call Maine Adult Protective Services at 800-624-8404.

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