Ellen Dzwonar (L), Case Manager, Older Adults Program, Family Services Association
and Michele Herzog (R), William Penn Bank, Financial Literacy Representative.
When Michele Herzog of William Penn Bank in Bucks County decided to search for news articles about cases of elder abuse, identity theft and scams to help her warn older citizens, she didn’t have to look far.
The print and broadcast news was full of them: A contractor who accepted a weighty deposit for work he never performed…a phone caller who asked for wired funds, but then never delivered the promised “prize”…an in-home caregiver who was siphoning funds from the patient she was hired to protect….a con artist who stole someone’s Social Security number and applied for a host of credit cards in that stolen name…a crafty son who forced an elderly parent to sign a new will. A “free” trial offer that had hefty fees and a binding, years-long, contract.
Indeed, William Penn himself, the peace-loving founder of this great Commonwealth, received Pennsylvania as payment for a loan that King Charles II of England owed to Penn’s father. Penn almost lost the expansive parcel of forested green paradise after his financial advisor swindled him and tied him up in court for more than a decade. A devastating stroke in 1712 affected Penn’s speech, mobility and cognition, and further damaged his ability to fight back against the financial exploitation.
To Herzog, these stories illustrated like no tri-fold pamphlet could the tales of woe that could arise from unscrupulous predators who target older investors. These true stories augmented the educational materials Herzog received in 2013 from the FDIC and CFPB on elder abuse as part of the “Money Smart for Older Adults” program, and they became a critical part of William Penn Bank’s path to protection.
As the Financial Literacy Officer for William Penn Bank — founded in 1870 and with branches in Bucks County’s history-rich Richboro, Levittown and Morrisville — Herzog knew that cases of heartbreaking financial exploitation existed in the pages of newspapers, but at her forums, she was shocked at what she heard happening in her own neighborhoods, and even to her own smart, financially savvy friends.
In today’s mass-connected, hyper-linked world, scams are easier than ever to perpetrate, through so many more avenues than ever before: face-to-face, by phone, and over the Internet.
One of her older friends attended a forum at the Bristol Lioness Club, when she shared a tale of theft for the first time with Herzog. The woman had hired an in-home caregiver for her husband. They always praised the caregiver and treated her like family—only to discover to their horror and deep sense of betrayal that the caregiver was stealing money and jewelry from them. That experience underscored for Herzog the importance of sharing. The warning bell needs to be sounded so others don’t fall victim.
Armed with her educational materials and anecdotes, Herzog began contacting libraries, Area Agencies on Aging, senior centers, the YMCA, and a local outreach center with a speakers’ series.
She has conducted a dozen forums already in the past three years.
Recently, she presented her program at the Northampton Library in Richboro. A local police officer who saw an advertisement about her talk asked if he could join her. Together they shared the bad news about scams. And they heard even more stories of abuse.
“What I find so amazing is the different stories I hear from those in attendance about situations that have happened to them,” Herzog said. “It really helps bring the awareness program to life.”
Sadly, in many ways, seniors are the perfect target. Many have a lifetime of savings. Their nest egg is liquid and accessible. They trust. They are a generation raised to be kind, polite, helpful, and caring, qualities which ruthless scammers can exploit to advance their own twisted ends. Not wanting to be rude, seniors may have a difficult time saying “no.”
Worse, many seniors are not sure of technology, and are new to the Internet. They may not know if a site is secure, or whether their privacy is protected. Some may be suffering from the onset of dementia, or even just have mild memory challenges that make it difficult to recall exactly what happened.
Compounding these factors, senior citizens often do not realize the value of their assets, so they may not notice missing funds. Older adults also are usually fairly predictable in their financial patterns. They may receive a check the same day of the month and go to the bank on the same day of every month.
Often, the elderly person who is being exploited is totally dependent on the abuser.
Charting exactly how prevalent financial abuse and exploitation of seniors is continues to be difficult. Many seniors are too embarrassed to report it, mad at themselves for falling for a scam and feeling like a “sucker.” Often it takes a while for them to realize they have been scammed, especially if they do not check their banks statements often. Or they do not know where to report it, so they don’t.
Many scammers are amazingly resourceful, capitalizing on current news. They will call about Obamacare or changes to Medicare, and tell seniors they must act now, for this “limited time offer.”
Free-trial offers online can trick consumers into signing up for ongoing services that actually carry a whopper price tag. Seniors may give credit card information on a site that is not secure, or to a telemarketer who is not tied to a bona fide organization.
Many scams are listed the FBI’s website at www.fbi.org.
Community banks can be in the front lines of fraud prevention and detection and can help stop it in its tracks. Estimates hold that one million to two million or more Americans age 65 or older have been injured, exploited or mistreated by someone they depended on for care or protection. Some two to ten percent of older citizens are victims of some kind of abuse. Only one in 25 cases of financial exploitation are even reported, according to Consumers Digest.
For every one case reported, about five are not, says the National Center on Elder Abuse.
Banks often serve as part of county-based task forces and can alert law enforcement.
Bucks County indeed has a Crimes Against Older Adults Task Force, founded by District Attorney Diane Gibbons after one particularly egregious case of elder abuse. The task force motto is “Silence Isn’t Golden. Help Stop Elder Abuse.” They have established an elder abuse hotline, and coalition members review current cases of abuse and discuss possible new investigations. Pennsylvania’s attorney general has also formed an Elder Abuse Task Force.
The home page of William Penn Bank joins these efforts with a detailed summary of how not to be victimized, cataloging phishing and other dangers.
Many Area Agencies on Aging in Pennsylvania’s 67 counties report that they get referrals from banks, and many banks have fraud prevention officers.
Because community banks develop a closer relationship with customers, they can more readily spot if something unusual is happening with a customer account.
Banks often help district attorneys, who are grateful for the expert assistance. District attorneys are accustomed to prosecuting homicides and assaults, but financial crimes are much harder to prosecute, making banks a key link in the strategy, they say.
William Penn Bank has reached 165 seniors via Herzog’s forums. Herzog hopes they have saved those 165 and more their hard-earned money and a heavy dose of heartache.
Herzog said she received a thank you note that “says it all:” “Financial institutions cannot warn people enough about the ways people are separated from their money.”
Breaking the silence and talking about scams can save the next victim. Forewarned is forearmed. Community banks like William Penn, named for one of Pennsylvania’s earliest victims of financial exploitation, are leading the charge.