INDIAN WELLS, Calif. - The limousine driver of an 82-year-old bank customer with Alzheimer's disease recently drove the woman to her San Diego-area bank to liquidate her certificates of deposit, worth about $90,000. The teller - without discussing the transaction with the wheelchair-bound woman - gave the driver a cashier's check made out to someone she presumed was the customer's attorney. But the "attorney" turned out to be the driver's friend, who then cashed the check and depleted the customer's life savings.

Now the woman's relatives are suing the bank, contending that the teller should have at least alerted senior management that something may have been awry. "Banks should take more responsibility in training bank tellers in looking for red flags," said Paul Greenwood, deputy district attorney for San Diego County, who heads up one of the country's first elder-abuse prosecution units.

Mr. Greenwood acknowledged that fear of litigation is the very thing that makes some banks skittish about calling the police for what may well be legitimate transactions. "But," he added, "I have never seen one suit against a bank for doing that. I have seen several lawsuits against banks for not calling."

Mr. Greenwood has been traveling to banks in the Southern California area in recent months to discuss abuse of the elderly and was the featured speaker here last week at a seminar on the subject. He said tellers should be suspicious if:

  • Elderly customers arrive are accompanied by strangers who request cash.
  • The customer appears confused or nervous, or if the transaction seems out of character for the customer.
  • Relatives or caregivers of the elderly attempt to obtain money from the customer's account, maintaining that they have power of attorney.
  • Handwriting on the main body of a check does not match the signature.

"Sadly, elder financial abuse is rampant, and it occurs right in the bank," Mr. Greenwood told a group of bankers at the conference, which was sponsored by the California Bankers Association. "But banks can help by becoming more proactive in recognizing problems before victims are drained of their accounts."Mr. Greenwood gave another example: Two men entered a San Diego-area bank with a check for $90,100 from one its elderly customers after having approached the woman at her home saying they were the original roofing contractors for her house and that there might be problems with the roof.
She refused their help, but the men climbed on the roof and afterward demanded payment.

Fearing for her safety, the partially blind woman allowed the men to write "one hundred" on a check, but it was spelled out to the far right of the check - leaving room for one of the men to later insert "Ninety thousand." The teller cashed the check for that amount without phoning the customer.

"The bank refused to reimburse her, maintaining that she was negligent in signing the check," Mr. Greenwood said. "But I think the bank was negligent, because what does it take to make a phone call?"

He noted that stories such as these can get a lot of media attention. A local television station was about to report that the San Diego-area bank had refused to reimburse the $90,100, but the bank relented before the broadcast.

Other red flags include numerous ATM withdrawals, checks written to "cash" or out of sequence, and transfers supported by power of attorney, Mr. Greenwood told the audience.

"Mainly, bank tellers should really get to know their senior customers, so that when there signs of unusual financial activity, or when there are changes in the customer's behavior, tellers can call the police," he said.

Alyce Shoopman, vice president of $313 million-asset Affinity Bank in Ventura, Calif., agreed with Mr. Greenwood - to a point.

"Tellers should get to know our customers so that they are not just account numbers on a page, but I don't think tellers should make the decision themselves to call the police," Ms. Shoopman said in an interview at the conference. "I think they should bring it to the attention to senior management to let them make the decision."

Still, some banks, such as $11 billion-asset Downey Savings Bank in Newport Beach, Calif., are taking an aggressive stance.

Downey drills its employees on the warning signs of abuse of the elderly,; its Rancho Bernardo branch recently invited Mr. Greenwood to speak with older customers.

Bill Shahan, the branch's manager, said, "It's a lot less work for us, and a lot less legal involvement, if we stop fraud before it actually happens."


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