Bankers ask for help saving seniors from financial scammers

Alan Lawitz , director of the Bureau of Adult Services and Office of Children and Family Services gives testimony during a joint legislative hearing on elder abuse prevention on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017, in Albany, N.Y. (AP Photo/Hans Pennink)

ALBANY, N.Y. — Advocates for the elderly say each year con artists and greedy family members cheat New York seniors out of $1.5 billion in assets but they worry the number of reported cases is only the tip of the financial abuse iceberg.

The Senate and Assembly's Joint Committee on Aging heard testimony Tuesday from advocates, bankers and lawyers pushing for increased prevention of financial abuse of the elderly.

Ann Marie Cook, Greater Rochester president of aging adult advocacy group Lifespan, said financial abuse is the most common form of abuse reported each year.

The attorney general's elder abuse coordinator, Gary Brown, said only 1 of 44 cases of financial abuse is reported to authorities because seniors are unaware or embarrassed they fell for schemes.

Brown said scams can affect any senior, not only seniors with dementia, because con artists rely on complex stories such as a grandchild who has been arrested or a potential romantic interest.

"Essence of a good con is to trigger an emotional response and take the brain out of the equation," Brown said.

Prosecuting cons and recovering savings is difficult because funds are often transferred anonymously through wires or prepaid debit cards. Advocates also say in more than half the cases of financial abuse the perpetrator is a family member trying to persuade or coerce a senior to funnel money into his or her own account.

The groups are pushing for a Senate bill that would allow banks to immediately place holds on seniors' accounts that show suspicious activity, facilitate bank reporting of suspected cases and release financial institutions from liability. Most New York banks already have their own standards for reporting this activity, New York Bankers Association general counsel Roberta Kotkin said.

Kotkin told lawmakers support from state law would encourage bank staff to report suspicious activity sooner.

In previous years the legislation has passed the Senate but stalled in the Assembly.

Lawmakers asked prosecutors and advocates whether the state should codify situations that hinge on subjective family dynamics and mental health conditions.

Democratic Assemblywoman Donna A. Lupardo said the "reasonable belief" the bill requires from banking staff strikes a fine line between preventing abuse and stereotyping seniors.

"It's hard to legislate a balancing act," she said.

Former prosecutor Liz Loewy, counsel for industry relations at fraud prevention group Eversafe, said New York is in the minority because 34 other states have laws addressing what banks, firms and financial services should do when they notice suspicious activity and 28 mandate reporting.

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