People's United Bank's longstanding efforts to combat financial scams took a major step forward Thursday as it launched a new educational campaign in partnership with AARP.
The campaign, which the Bridgeport, Conn.-based bank has been developing for more than a year, involves multiple avenues for reaching the bank's customers, including branch locations, ATMs, billboard advertisements and web materials.
Eight key branch offices — spread across New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont — now feature interactive kiosks designed and built by AARP to inform consumers about the dangers of financial fraud and apprise them of the scams currently targeting their communities. These include financial abuse of older Americans — a growing problem — as well as credit card fraud and scams that troll for victims on social media or Craigslist.
The partnership arose out of a joint desire to "tackle a problem that we both believe is a very serious one — frankly, at epidemic levels," according to Greg Marchildon, AARP director for the state of Vermont, who was instrumental to the initiative.
For more than 20 years, People's United Bank has striven to educate consumers about the danger of financial scams, primarily by holding fraud prevention presentations and workshops in the Northeast communities where it has a presence. AARP has been a partner in those efforts, and it has developed on its own a number of educational resources.
Among these is the Fraud Watch Network, a free suite of online content. Launched in 2013, it includes quizzes, fraud-prevention tips, videos featuring Frank Abagnale of "Catch Me If You Can" fame and a real-time scam-tracking map to which AARP members and local and state law enforcement contribute.
In mid-2016, Marchildon recalls, there was a scam targeting people in Burlington, Vt., in which homeowners would get a call informing them that their electric bill had increased and giving them the option to pay it off in one lump sum using a credit card or Western Union.
"That was a scam that only affected people in Burlington, but we were able to put that information up and get some info out to the press to raise awareness," he said.
Senior citizens are particularly vulnerable. Nearly one in five Americans aged 65 and over is a victim of financial fraud, according to numerous studies, and often the perpetrators are family members, caregivers or financial advisers. Annual losses to seniors are estimated at around $3 billion but could be more than 10 times that, because many incidents of abuse go unreported.
And despite AARP's national reach, there is only so much that web-based outreach can do.
"Our research strongly indicates that peer-to-peer conversations around fraud and scams, from one neighbor to another, or a son to a parent, is really the best way to combat this crime," said Marchildon.
Consequently, People's United employees have received Fraud Watch Network training to supplement the bank's own training on financial exploitation, and all of the nearly 400 branches now provide take-home materials on how to identify and avoid scams and frauds.
"In our branches, we regularly engage our customers on a whole host of financial topics. So, to me, this is just a natural extension of that," said Sara Longobardi, the senior executive vice president of retail banking at People's United.
Much of the Fraud Watch Network content is now available on the kiosks installed in select People's United branches. Each six-and-a-half-foot kiosk, in addition to providing free fraud-prevention handbooks and the Fraud Watch Network's web address, is equipped with an iPad that comes pre-loaded with a custom app developed by AARP. Users can watch an interview with a con artist, check out the scam-tracking map or take a series of quizzes to test their knowledge.
AARP plans to track user engagement in order to provide fresh content on a quarterly basis, retaining the popular stuff while rotating out the material in which bank visitors seem less interested. The group sees the kiosks as a way to expand beyond its usual demographic.
"Older adults do tend to be a primary target for scam artists, but this campaign with AARP really is looking to target all age groups," said Karen Galbo, who oversees People's United's community outreach programs. "Any one of us could be the target of a scam."
The kiosks are strategically located in bank branches in Norwalk and West Hartford, Conn.; in the Boston financial district; on Park Avenue in New York City; in Hicksville, Long Island; in Burlington, Vt.; in Portland, Maine; and in Keene, N.H. Between them, these eight branches serve 33,169 customers a month.
If they prove to be popular, AARP hopes to install more kiosks in People's United branches in 2018.
The $41 billion-asset bank's website will also carry a direct link to the Fraud Watch Network site, obviating the need to develop its own content. In 2015, the last year for which data was available, People's United's website received 82 million page views. Monthly page views were 6.8 million, making the site an important vehicle for spreading the campaign's message widely.
"Even if we get a small slice of that 6.8 million a month, those numbers are just going to be enormous for us," Marchildon said.
The campaign's second phase, due to begin rolling out this summer, will involve billboard ads and a large direct mailing effort. Moreover, all People's United ATMs will begin displaying a series of three rotating messages about consumer fraud. ATM users will see the messages before inserting their cards.
About 13.2 million People's United customers, and about 2.5 million noncustomers, use the bank's ATMs annually — another huge potential audience for the fraud-prevention initiative.
"We're really excited about the ATM and billboard piece, because that's millions of impressions," Marchildon said. "We're going to be able to create a huge amount more awareness in these states. That kind of reach, in real time, was what AARP was looking for in a partner."