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The Fight Against Exploitation and Elder Abuse Skip to content

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The Fight Against Elder Abuse

Bob Edwards talks about the financial exploitation of older Americans

Hand wearing a black glove trying to take money out of a black wallet

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Bob Edwards: Hello, I'm Bob Edwards with an AARP take on today. We all like to think our money is safe in the bank, right? And generally it is, especially when we are still in control of our accounts. The truth is, and research shows, that a staggering one in five older Americans are victims of financial exploitation. Even more shocking, each victim loses an average of $120,000 when it happens to them. AARP'S BankSafe, a free online training platform, provides bank and credit union employees with the knowledge, skills, and confidence they need to better identify the warning signs of potential fraud. And it's working. This week AARP announced new consumer research conducted along with Virginia Tech's Center for Gerontology that chilled the training of frontline bank staff through a six month pilot program has made an impact. Not only did the army of BankSafe trained professionals stop 12 times more money from being stolen, but reported more than four times the number of suspected incidents of financial exploitation. Here to help us explain why BankSafe is a real game changer is AARP's Jilenne Gunther. Tell me about the BankSafe program. How did it come about?

Jilenne Gunther: So the BankSafe initiative works with the industry in three key areas to meet the needs of older adults. We conduct research, we identify and facilitate adoption of promising practices, and we develop tools. And the BankSafe training meets all of those. So what we do with the BankSafe training is we're looking at army and the front lines of tellers in banks and credit unions across the United States and empowering them through a 60 minute online training on how to recognize but also prevent exploitation before the money leaves the account.

Bob Edwards: Tell me about those tools.

Jilenne Gunther: So we developed an online training that's about 60 minutes for employees at the front lines of banks and credit unions across the United States. And so by engaging them, we're really getting people to remember and act on those tips that we have within the training

Bob Edwards: Tips for what? Is this to a vulnerable audience?

Jilenne Gunther: It looks at how do you identify financial exploitation? What are the red flags of exploitation? One in five older adults become a victim of financial exploitation. The average victim loses about $120,000.

Bob Edwards: That's a lot of money.

Jilenne Gunther: It is a lot of money.

Bob Edwards: Does the program work?

Jilenne Gunther: It's very effective. One of the things that we wanted to do, we wanted to measure, is this effective? So we brought in Virginia Tech Center on Gerontology and we looked at, how can we tell if this is effective? Our hypothesis is if we train an arm and empower the front lines that they'll be better able to protect older adults against financial exploitation. So we actually put together a study that involved a first of its kind, involved about 100 financial institutions. This is really rare to have the industry involved in a study. And we measured our hypothesis. Would this training prevent the money from leaving the account?

And we found out that it does. And we thought it would. But what we were surprised about is about how much it is preventing exploitation. So in our study we had people that took the BankSafe training and we had people that didn't take the BankSafe training. Those who took the training saved 12 times more than those who didn't take the training. And what's interesting is that both of those groups within the last year, the majority of them had taken some other financial exploitation training. So we can really say that AARP is stopping financial exploitation in conjunction with the industry.

Bob Edwards: So you're really seeing results.

Jilenne Gunther: That's one of the reasons that AARP is involved in this, is this is a cornerstone of AARP's work. And the stakes couldn't be higher. We're all living longer, which makes protecting our savings even more important. And we owe it to our members to help protect their assets. But it's a job that we can't accomplish alone. And that's why we're working with the industry to really empower financial professionals to recognize the signs and then to stop it.

Bob Edwards: Now you mentioned people can be robbed of their life savings, but how widespread is this? Is this really a big problem?

Jilenne Gunther: One in five older adults become victims of exploitation. And what we're seeing is that population ages, we're seeing an increase and rise in financial exploitation. And because the average victim is losing $120,000, that becomes a problem. We want to ensure the financial security of older adults so they can age with dignity and independence. And when that's threatened, then it enacts AARP to be that fierce defender to prevent this.

Bob Edwards: Who are the most common victims? People with the most money, I suppose.

Jilenne Gunther: Not necessarily. It crosses all classes. Perpetrators really like to target anyone and everyone, but they specifically like to target those they perceive as vulnerable. So people that recently have lost a spouse, someone that's recently been in a hospital, someone who's chronically isolated. And that's why it becomes really important as a community to be a second pair of eyes to watch for this exploitation over people that are vulnerable. But it really happens to anyone, those who are vulnerable and those who are not.

Bob Edwards: Who's preying on these victims?

Jilenne Gunther: Sometimes it's a family member, and they had the old adage that blood is thicker than water. But for some people, money is thicker than blood. But of course not all people that you know are perpetrators, obviously. But it's always good to have a pair of eyes looking out for you.

Bob Edwards: Do these incidents result in prosecution?

Jilenne Gunther: Typically what we're seeing is that, by the time you prosecute, by the time someone reports exploitation, the money's already gone. That's what we're working with, is to empower those frontline people, those tellers, fraud risk managers to recognize what it is so they can intervene before the money leaves the account.

Bob Edwards: Are there stories that really stand out for you?

Jilenne Gunther: Yeah, my own.

Bob Edwards: Oh, my.

Jilenne Gunther: So my grandfather was involved in the financial industry, he worked in the financial industry for 40 plus years. It was when he was in his 90s and he was retired that my family discovered he was being financially exploited. Someone was taking cash out of his wallet. So my uncle, who is a banker, saw the red flags and decided to set a trap. Of course he used dye packs. And if you've watched CSI, dye packs are basically a substance that if you touch the wad of money, it dies your hands red. So our family literally caught-

Bob Edwards: Caught red-handed.

Jilenne Gunther: ... the thief red-handed. And our family was lucky because we come from four generations of bankers, but other families are not as lucky.

Bob Edwards: Many financial institutions already provide employees with training to identify financial exploitation. How is BankSafe different?

Jilenne Gunther: A lot of trainings, because it's regulation based, they're looking at what are the red flags and then reporting it. But by the time report it the money's gone. So we look at it as, how can we empower people with tools on the front lines of banks and credit unions to stop it before the money leaves the account?

Bob Edwards: How do family members protect themselves from other family members?

Jilenne Gunther: One of the things that we recommend is to always have two people involved. So one of the times when someone can get vulnerable is when they need help with their finances. What we tell people to do is if you need to appoint someone to manage your finances in your family, look at who you trust the most within your family. And then also add a second person to work with that person, with accountants. But we need checks and balances when you're managing someone's finances.

Bob Edwards: Now how can I learn more about BankSafe?

Jilenne Gunther: You can go to aarp.org/banksafe.

Bob Edwards: Thank you very much.

Jilenne Gunther: Thank you.

Bob Edwards: So, clearly, BankSafe has made an immediate impact on preventing financial fraud, and hopefully more banks and credit unions are taking notice. Every year financial institutions lose more than one billion dollars in deposits due to the exploitation of Americans over 50 years of age. While the numbers tell a costly story, the human and personal stakes are even more real and heartbreaking. Anshanita Peace, who has worked on fraud related issues for Westerra Credit Union for two decades shared one of those stories with us. And more importantly, how to protect yourself and your money.

Anshanita Peace: There was an elderly woman, she was a community activists in the city of Denver. Some years ago, she had an account with us and she started getting sick. We believe that she had early stages of dementia. She has several properties in the city of Denver and she was living in a hotel, so that was one red flag for us. She told us it was because she was getting her home renovated.

This continued to go on for weeks and months, and I finally met the contractor. He would bring her in on numerous occasions to withdraw funds for different things, from a roof to a paint job to remove asbestos and mold from her home, and I felt uncomfortable with it after there were so many transactions and I began going past the home, because I live pretty close to it. He didn't do a good job at all. He took advantage. And it was over $100,000 of withdrawals. And the work was done, however, was real shoddy. The paint job was terrible. I've contacted law enforcement, and law enforcement began to investigate, and come to find out he had been taken advantage of, not only her, but others. I ended up contacting her, her son and daughter-in-law, and they came down and actually removed her from the hotel and moved her to Detroit where she stayed and ended up passing away eventually.

Bob Edwards: Having personally witnessed a customer losing her life savings to fraud has made Anshanita an enthusiastic advocate for BankSafe.

Anshanita Peace: We did gain a lot of insight on the training, which is just to make sure that we are making our members more aware. And it's the training and it's the awareness is I think what BankSafe is doing a great job at. It's the education that's very important. And it's trained staff that can really see and talk to the members and have relationships with our members to know, "You know what? Something may be a little bit off here. Let's have a conversation more with our members to find out if there's some things that's going on that doesn't seem like their normal habits." So if we see any type of transactions that are large, we want to question those if it's out of pattern for them. So we like to ask more questions and dig a little bit deeper.

Bob Edwards: Westerra Credit Union is not alone in making the protection of their members a priority. Since launching nationally in May, 2019 more than three million consumers with approximately 71 billion dollars in assets are being better protected thanks to the BankSafe training. Here's Michelle who shared her family's story for the BankSafe training program.

Michelle: This all started in 2010, right after my mom passed away. It was about six months after she had passed, and my stepdad, who I refer to as Pop, started talking about this woman that he had met online, that they were corresponding via email, via phone calls. And of course my first concern, hearing so many stories about these people who have been taken advantage of financially, was, "Pop, you're not sending her any money, are you?" And he assured me, "No, she knows that I don't have anything due to your mom's medical bills."

Michelle: It wasn't until he got sick with cancer in 2014 and I was made power of attorney that I was then able to contact the bank and say I would like copies of every single bank statement. And once I did go through all of those bank statements, then it was determined that he had actually sent her $48,000.

Of course, at first I was angry and mad. He always did it through the grocery store. The first time he went to go wire $3,000 they contacted him and refused to send his money through, because they told him that she was a fraud. She had already been in their database. She then convinced him, break those amounts up into smaller amounts. I wish I would've asked more questions. I wish that I would have maybe done a little bit more investigative work. There are so many things looking back that could have caused change, other than just talking on the phone about it and being reassured that everything is fine.

Bob Edwards: Keeping our loved ones safe from any kind of fraud and especially bank fraud takes a great deal of vigilance. But when that vigilance is a two-sided effort, the results are overwhelmingly effective and a win/win for both potential victims and financial institutions. So next time you're at your bank or credit union, ask them about the steps they're taking to train their staff to stop the financial exploitation of older adults. To learn more about BankSafe and financial fraud protection visit aarp.org/banksafe.

Bob Edwards: For more, visit aarp.org/podcast. Become a subscriber and be sure to rate our podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Stitcher, and other podcast apps. Thanks for listening. I'm Bob Edwards.

One-in-five older Americans are victims of financial exploitation and each victim loses an average of $120,000. When vigilance is a two-sided effort, the results are overwhelmingly effective and a win for potential victims and financial institutions.

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