by Bill Moak
Hardly a week goes by that doesn’t include news of a caregiver who has been accused of stealing from an elderly or otherwise-vulnerable person in that individual’s care. Just last week, Attorney General Jim Hood announced the arrest of a Jackson woman who owns a personal care home, on charges she took more than $12,000 from a patient and was in the process of attempting to steal an additional $2,900.
A news release from Hood (http://www.ago.state.ms.us/releases/owner-of-a-jackson-retirement-and-assisted-living-facility-arrested-for-exploitation/) reported that Pebla Jones Wright, 48, was charged with felony exploitation of a vulnerable person and another for attempted exploitation of a vulnerable person. If convicted on the charges, she could face up to 20 years in prison and a $20,000 fine.
Jones is just the latest Mississippian to be accused of taking funds from vulnerable people and converting them to their own personal use. With the retirement of the baby boom generation producing record numbers of elderly people in need of care, there are also likely to be people waiting to take advantage of the money they can provide.
Financial exploitation of seniors has reached near-epidemic proportions in the U.S. According to the National Center on Elder Abuse, one in five Americans will be over the age of 65 by 2050; a 2010 study reported that one in five of those have been victims of financial abuse and fraud. Those numbers, while staggering, may be just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Seniors may be reluctant to report fraud for a number of reasons including embarrassment, fear of retribution and a complicated reporting process.
While law enforcement does what it can, the banking industry is uniquely positioned to have the greatest potential impact. Often, seniors are coerced into giving or sending money to people through banking transactions, but attentive bank personnel may be able to stop questionable transactions or to alert authorities. I recall one case in which a Mississippi bank teller noticed an elderly person was about to send a cashier’s check for thousands of dollars to a known scammer, and was able to intervene and stop the transaction. Such intervention isn’t without risk; in the past, bank personnel have done so at great risk of legal repercussions for disclosing such information or even getting involved, but in most states, they are now protected.
In fact, Mississippi’s Vulnerable Persons Act requires any person who believes such a crime may be in progress to report it, and is provided immunity from being sued as long as the report is made “in good faith” — even if an investigation reveals no fraud or abuse actually exists.
The banking industry is responding to the challenge as well. On Tuesday, the American Bankers Association Foundation announced a new campaign called Safe Banking for Seniors (http://aba.com/seniors) — to provide a set of comprehensive tools and resources starting in January. The site will include event materials, lesson plans, media outreach tools and best practices. The site is active now, and contains some basic resources for banks and seniors alike.
“Bankers are often the first line of defense against elder financial fraud from educating and advising customers to spotting the signs of abuse,” said ABA President and CEO Frank Keating. “We take our role seriously, and the more we can work together as citizens, bankers, and government officials, we can protect our seniors from fraud.”
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Moak: Bank group fighting senior financial abuse