ALBANY, N.Y. — By the time Roseann Keiles realized a scam artist had his hooks in her mother, the damage was done. The 82-year-old Long Island woman, who had Alzheimer’s disease, had mailed away thousands of dollars in little envelopes to a man calling himself “Mr. Cashman” who phoned every day asking for money.
“My mother and I were banking at same branch of Chase. I went in one day and the bank manager pulled me aside and said, ‘I just want you to be aware your mother has been coming in every three days taking out $300 in cash,'” Keiles said.
A bill now under consideration in the New York Legislature would give banks the ability to temporarily freeze the accounts of older adults when they notice activity uncharacteristic of spending habits.
Many New York banks already have standards and training for employees to spot financial exploitation, but in the past, reporting of suspicious activity was “chilled by the absence of guidelines and sufficiently unambiguous protections for banks and their employees who might have suspected abuse but were deterred by the lack of unambiguous appropriate protection from liability,” said Roberta Kotkin, New York Bankers Association general counsel and chief operating officer.
The measure was unanimously approved by the Senate in March but has faced resistance in the Democratic-led Assembly and hasn’t been scheduled for a vote.
Some Assembly members worry it plays into stereotypes that all seniors have diminished brain function. Other opponents, including a committee of the New York State Bar Association, have said it could encourage banks to put needless transaction holds on the accounts of seniors, with no consequences for mistakenly delayed transactions.
Few, though, disagree financial exploitation of elders is a problem.
Every year, financial fraud costs New York seniors an estimated $1.5 billion, according to the state’s Office of Children and Family Services. As many as 5 million older Americans are victims of financial abuse each year, and in New York the number of financial exploitation allegations increased more than 35 percent between 2010 and 2014, the agency said.
Caregivers can easily swipe credit cards and cash Social Security checks for years before some seniors notice.
The New York attorney general’s office said scammers often try to play on a victim’s fears and emotions, with urgent phone calls falsely claiming a grandchild has been arrested abroad and needs money for bail, or allegations the victim owes money to the IRS.
Prosecuting offenses can be tough, too. Embarrassment keeps many victims from coming forward, said New York AARP director Beth Finkel.
“There’s a stigma,” Finkel said. “Who wants to raise their hand and say, ‘I’ve been a victim?'”
She called on the governor and the leaders of the Senate and Assembly to come together and find a solution to pass the law.
“This is not solving for nuclear war,” she said. “This is someone who walks into their local bank and is protected.”
Mike Adamski, of Webster, said he would have welcomed alerts from banks that someone was emptying out the accounts of his 78-year-old grandfather while he was in a nursing home.
The culprit, he said, was a relative who siphoned off as much as $250,000 by cleaning out his savings and selling his possessions, including the three-piece suit the man was supposed to be buried in.
“By the time I really got involved, it was too late,” Adamski said.