California bankers are pushing for a state law that would indemnify banks against failure to report suspected financial abuse of the elderly.
The California Bankers Association is lobbying for the bill, which would protect banks that volunteer to train employees in spotting this type of abuse. It is slated to be introduced in the California Legislature within a month.
The trade group prefers the legislation to potential bills such as two introduced in California last year. Under those bills, tellers and other employees of banks and credit unions could have been jailed for failing to report suspected financial abuse of elderly customers to law enforcement officials or the state's Adult Protective Services agency.
Both of the 2004 bills were defeated, but prosecutors say they are lobbying legislators to write a bill that would at least fine tellers or their banks for failing to report.
A handful of states already have laws under which bank employees can be penalized for failing to report suspected financial abuse of the elderly.
Janet Lamkin, the president and chief executive of the California Bankers Association, said that "any bill that mandates employees to report is absolutely the wrong approach."
"Even with training, bank employees would not be experts in this kind of abuse, and they would be held liable if they miss something," Ms. Lamkin said. "Additionally, it would result in a lot of overreporting, creating too much of a burden … and possible privacy issues" for customers later found not to have been abused.
Regulatory compliance is a growing concern for bankers. A flurry of new laws to combat terrorism and corporate malfeasance put more responsibility on employees to report suspected money laundering or fraud to authorities. Some states require bank employees to turn in parents they suspect of failing to make child-support payments.
Ms. Lamkin said CBA members want to do their part in the fight against fraud and terrorist financing. But it can be a hassle to comply with some laws that in effect designate bank employees as police officers, she said.
But Paul R. Greenwood, a deputy district attorney for San Diego County and the head of its elder-abuse unit, said voluntary training programs are not enough.
"I think that some banks would just say, 'We'll get to it one day,' but this is a serious problem happening now," Mr. Greenwood said. "I'm not suggesting that we immediately jump to mandated reporting, but we should at least have mandatory training."
Mr. Greenwood said that if a consensus on this issue is not reached with banks and credit unions, he would consider lobbying for mandated reporting again. He and other attorneys have sought legislation on this issue for years, he said, because they have prosecuted numerous cases in which bank employees could have easily spotted or reported possible abuse but did not.
The California Health and Human Services Agency says 150,000 to 200,000 California seniors a year are victims of financial abuse, and the numbers are expected to increase substantially as the over-65 population grows. The Census Bureau estimates that by 2030 there will be 70 million elderly Americans, more than twice their number in 2000.
Mr. Greenwood said some banks, particularly many larger ones (he would not name any), refuse to provide the training that he and others advocate. These banks say they fear getting sued if employees mistakenly report abuse, but Mr. Greenwood said customers or their relatives could just as easily sue banks for failing to report legitimate cases of abuse.
But he said many community banks are more willing to implement training programs, and he applauded California Bankers Association members that donated funds to the California Community Partnership for the Prevention of Financial Abuse.
The funds helped the San Francisco nonprofit produce educational materials, including a video for tellers. Now other banks are being encouraged to use the materials.