Atomic Credit Union ($532.5M, Piketon, OH) and AgFed Federal Credit Union ($351.2M, Washington, DC) are just two of the many credit unions in the United States that share a concern about elder financial exploitation (EFE). That’s good because according to the AARP, the rate of EFE has more than doubled since the COVID-19 pandemic was declared in March 2020.
“Vulnerable groups have disproportionately suffered from its impact, particularly older adults who have suffered illness, death, isolation, and financial exploitation,” the AARP report says.
Romance scams are a particular problem, but trusted family members can also be culprits, and only one in approximately 44 victims reports they have been exploited, the AARP also reports.
The numbers are adding up. Onjil McEachin, director of the Division of Consumer Affairs at the NCUA, says elder abuse impacts at least 10% of older Americans each year and has cost them nearly $3 billion in financial losses since 2019.
“The isolation that was required to keep older Americans safe has had an unintended consequence of making them more vulnerable to financial exploitation,” McEachin says.
At AgFed, which has a membership heavily skewed to the baby boomer age range, EFE has at last doubled in the past few years, says Margie Click, president and CEO of the 27,000-member cooperative for the past 28 years. But the problem is not confined to the elderly.
“We classify the abuse as elder abuse, but we approach it more as abuse to vulnerable members,” Click says.
According to Click, the credit union has witnessed exploitation of disabled and mentally challenged members. It’s happened among family, by children caring for their parents, and to lonely individuals responding to others pretending they care.
“We’ve seen it happen to the very well-educated and to parents of children acting as caretakers,” Click says. “No one likes being called an ‘elder,’ whether you’re in your 50s or your 80s. Impacted individuals also don’t like admitting they made a mistake or were taken advantage of.”
Aaron Michael, who has been Atomic’s chief operating officer and general counsel for the past 18 years, says EFE has spiked at his cooperative, too, and also attributes it to the pandemic.
“During COVID, our elderly members became more homebound and reliant on others,” he says. “This isolation caused some people to be more vulnerable.”
Vulnerable members had to rely on phone calls and computers more during they pandemic, and they had to trust others to run their errands. It was a bad confluence of factors.
It Happens Everywhere
Michael is quick to adds that it’s not just digital fraud.
“This is a serious problem all over the country,” the COO and general counsel says. “Southern Ohio has been hit especially hard by the opioid epidemic, and many times a drug-addicted family member is the perpetrator of the elder abuse.”
McEachin at the NCUA cites FinCEN’s June 2022 Advisory on Elder Financial Exploitation, about three common schemes:
- Government imposter scams, where scammers impersonate officials from the IRS or other official agencies and tell people they will be arrested for criminal activity such as tax evasion.
- Romance scams, often in the form of fake accounts on a dating app. McEachin says those jumped 80% in a single year to $547 million in reported losses in 2021.
- Grandparent scams in which a caller convinces an older adult that a grandchild or other loved one is in an emergency and must be sent money immediately.
Michael says alert Atomic branch staff recently stopped an elderly member from sending more than $46,000 to pay taxes in a fake Publisher’s Clearinghouse scam with the promise of a major prize to follow.
“Our member had been told not to discuss this with anyone due to the possibility of media coverage, which could result in getting robbed,” he says. “The fraudsters had been harassing her for three days. They even demanded the member use a branch where the staff was unfamiliar with her in hopes she would not be questioned about needing a check of this amount.”
That familiarity is a secret weapon for credit unions with a branch-heavy, personal connection to their members.
“Atomic is fortunate in that we still know many of our members, and our branches and staff serve in primarily small towns and rural areas,” Michael says. “That said, the circumstances of our victims are like many across the country. Caregivers, family members, and other people in positions of trust begin taking advantage of a person who has no one else to help with their affairs. The person feels obligated to comply or doesn’t even know they’re being exploited.”
Identify, Prevent, And Report
“Credit unions are uniquely positioned to identify, prevent, and report exploitation of older adults,” McEachin says. “The NCUA, like the CFPB in its 2019 updated advisory, urges credit unions to report to the appropriate local, state, and federal authorities whenever they suspect that an older adult is the target or victim of elder financial exploitation.”
In Ohio, employees of credit unions are mandatory reporters of elder abuse, Michael adds.
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“We train our staff to identify signs of elder financial exploitation and intervene for our members’ best interests,” he says. “This is especially important for front-line staff to recognize the red flags of elder abuse. They work with our legal, fraud, and BSA departments who are monitoring reports for additional red flags.”
Besides unusual withdrawals and wire transfers, the Atomic COO advises credit unions to watch for one major red flag.
“The most obvious sign is a member being assisted by someone else,” Michael says. “Many times, this is a family member or caretaker.”
Michaels adds that the person could come into the branch with the elderly member, wait in the car, or instruct the member in the background on a telephone call.
His credit union stocks a flyer titled, “Financial Fraud and Exploitation” at each teller line and loan officer’s desk. Atomic also sends out emails to members about the problem and conducts internal annual training that includes policy reviews and quizzes.
AgFed, for its part, maintains a web page titled “Elder Financial Abuse Prevention” and trains its staff, too, to be alert to potential problems. CEO Click says employees spot and stop what they can, following up on issues spotted by member service reps, the risk department, or the members themselves.
“We have members telephone us, email, or come in, alerting us that they gave up their online credentials to someone who reached out to them for a variety of reasons,” Click says. “There are so many scams, and with all of the additional technical abilities, cash apps, online verification, perpetrators acting as bill collectors, perpetrators acting as ‘trusted advisers’ … it’s impacted so many. Honestly, if you don’t work in the industry, you can become vulnerable at any age.”
Click adds that her risk department thinks the increase in fraud incidences might be related to the number of breaches within the health industry, given how much information providers have about individuals. Regardless of how the problem originated, Click’s staff swings into action, but not everyone is thrilled about the amount of additional screening and questioning.
“Although some of the members are grateful, many are bothered by it and feel it is none of our business,” Click says.
McEachin, the NCUA’s consumer affairs director, advises credit unions to develop a training culture that consistently educates staff on how to identify, report, and intervene when they suspect EFE, elder financial exploitation.
Prong one: What to include in training
- Applicable laws regarding elder abuse, including the Senior Safe Act and the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act .
- Reporting protocols for federal, state, and local authorities. Discuss how Suspicious Activity Reports (SAR) help law enforcement identify suspects who might be committing financial crimes, including EFE.
- Information about opt-in account safeguards such as trusted contacts, restricting withdrawal amounts, or setting up alerts for suspicious activity.
“Provide scenarios and role play to help staff more fully understand their role in prevention and reporting,” McEachin advises.
Prong two: Educational resources
McEachin says credit unions should consider using educational resources from trusted sources that have a mission to combat EFE.
She also says credit unions should work to educate members and communities about how to recognize financial exploitation. That can include:
- Having conversations with members about elder financial exploitation, including how trusted contacts might reduce risk.
- Providing written materials to members in large font and plain language about the credit union’s policies and procedures regarding elder financial exploitation. This could include a written disclosure provided to the account holder when they appoint a trusted contact.
- Offering training to members about elder financial abuse and how to prevent it.
“Having a deliberate, well-defined process will help your team know what to do, when to do it, and how to do it,” McEachin says.