Credit Unions Join With Banks, Local Gov't. To Attack Elder Abuse Scams

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Nine credit unions in this market have joined with two banks and are working with Santa Clara County Adult Protective Services to train staff in recognizing signs that elderly members/customers are at risk of being defrauded of their savings.

The effort follows news that an 86-year-old local man lost $85,000 in savings and a $300,000 piece of property to a relative who took advantage of him.

"Their part is absolutely key because they know their customers and they can look for any unusual banking patterns," said Jamie Buckmaster, manager of Adult Protective Services.

The collaborative effort, dubbed the Financial Institutions Team Project, or FIT, teams Capitol Power CU, Golden Bay FCU, Guarantee Bank, Meriwest CU, Mission City FCU, Peninsula Postal CU, Santa Clara FCU, Star One CU, Technology CU, Valley CU, and Wells Fargo Bank with the county's Financial Abuse Specialist Team, or FAST.

FAST pools the resources of Adult Protective Services, the County Public Guardian's Office, the County Counsel, and the County District Attorney's office to rapidly intervene in cases where someone is suspected of financially exploiting a senior citizen.

"Financial abuse runs the gamut everything from telemarketing scams to sweetheart scams to lottery scams to children gaining control of their elderly parents' assets and stealing from them by draining their bank accounts or selling their house from under them," said Lynn Brubaker, VP-member operations for Star One Credit Union, the pioneer in FIT.

The members of FIT meet regularly and provide handouts, videos and training to staff to help set up policies and procedures to help vulnerable clients. "We would like every financial institution that does business in Santa Clara County to be part of FIT, because the stakes are so tremendous," Brubaker said. "Elder victims of financial abuse have three times the mortality rate of non- victims."

Star One in Sunnyvale, Calif., became involved because of the large number of affluent senior members it serves. To serve them and help them manage their assets, it created a Beneficiary and Retiree Services group.

"We realized that handling at-risk members would require special training and a careful approach, because there are not just personal issues involved but legal ramifications like privacy concerns," Brubaker said. "We were able to develop a model for the early detection of financial abuse that makes our staff better equipped to face these challenges."

With a model in place to flag suspected cases of financial abuse, the credit union reported several instances to Adult Protective Services. Through those contacts, the department saw Star One as the starting place to forge an alliance between the county's financial services industry and its social service agencies.

In 2002, the county received 2,040 reports of abuse of elder and dependent adults, Buckmaster said. Of those, 575 were reports of financial abuse. Those figures probably under represent the extent of the problem, she said. Only about one in 14 cases of abuse of the elderly gets reported. In the case of financial abuse, the estimate is one in 100.

"The reason so many elders don't report is shame depending on local statistics, the perpetrator is a family member in 60% to 90% of all cases. These people didn't raise their kids to rip them off," Buckmaster said. "Many elders won't report they have fallen prey to a scam or scammer due to embarrassment and the fear that someone, their family, will think they cannot handle their finances. They fear that if this is discovered, they'll have to go to a nursing home."

FAST can intervene immediately in looming predatory situations. When the county gets a report of potential financial abuse, at least two members of the team investigate. In cases where an elderly person is being manipulated, and if the FAST team believes it can move for conservatorship within 15 days, the Public Guardian's office can use the state probate to freeze the suspected victim's assets. In some cases, FAST members have been alerted by the staff of a financial institution that a suspicious transaction is occurring and have confronted the abuser in the act, Buckmaster said.

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