Advocacy Update: The Steps to Preventing Elder Financial Exploitation

We all know the basics of problem-solving. Step 1— identify the problem. Step 2 —develop options and a plan to solve the problem. Step 3— execute the plan to address the problem. Step 4—evaluate the effectiveness of the solution you deployed. 

Not to be all doom and gloom, but we have a big problem on our hands: elder fraud. 

These days, chances are you or a family member know someone in their sphere who has been a victim of financial exploitation or had a near-miss. At this point we are all conditioned to instantly delete emails from that overly generous Nigerian prince promising you millions once you reply with all your sensitive information. But modern-day schemes are very elaborate, prey on peoples’ sensibilities, or are carried about by individuals the victim knows and trusts. Even for the sharpest tacks, it can be difficult to differentiate between what is legitimate and what is not. 

Without casting any sort of judgement, older populations are more vulnerable to these schemes; they are more heavily targeted, and losses are both higher and more devastating. Past their peak earning years, seniors can end up in dire financial straits.

Financial exploitation, be it theft or a scam, is a pervasive and growing problem both in Wisconsin and nationwide. The COVID-19 pandemic has made matters even worse, as fraudsters are increasingly targeting those who find themselves isolated or financially desperate. Since the onset of the pandemic, fraud attempts have nearly tripled. Quantifying the problem is slightly difficult; we only know the information that gets reported, which is only a fraction of the true number of incidents. The monetary toll is in the billions, and the ancillary effects may even be worse.

We know elder fraud is a problem, we know it takes place in Wisconsin, and we know it is only getting worse. How are we going to tackle this issue? As banking industry professionals, thankfully we also know bankers can play a role in curbing elder fraud and financial exploitation. With all this in mind, we’ve turned to the State Legislature to give bank, credit union, securities, and financial services personnel additional tools and empowerment to prevent financial harm to seniors.

In the 2019-20 legislative session, two bills developed in concert by law enforcement, advocates, and the aforementioned stakeholder groups were introduced and passed by the Assembly. The plan was more than halfway to being executed before COVID-19 threw a wrench in lawmaking and just about everything else.

My monthly government relations pieces are typically more lighthearted, so you know I’m not going to end this on a sour note. So here is some good news—though we had to press reset on Step 3, the Legislature picked up right where it left off. The same day WBA held our virtual Capitol Day (May 11), which included a summary on the issue of elder fraud, the State Assembly approved two pieces of legislation—Assembly Bills 45 and 46—on voice votes.

These bills would allow qualified individuals to temporarily pause transactions where they suspect elder fraud is taking place, refuse power of attorney in certain situations, and allow seniors to name a trusted contact as an extra layer of protection. The bills also provide legal protection to bankers acting in good faith to prevent elder financial fraud.

Our focus now turns to the State Senate, once more, where we need affirmative votes to get these bills across the finish line. We’ve been working hard to push these bills through the process but still need grassroots help.

Together, I am optimistic we can get to Step 4, where we can begin to evaluate how effective our plan was to solve the elder fraud problem. I’d be willing to bet we’ll like the results we see when we get there

By, Alex Paniagua