Spotting Elder Financial Abuse
BY: PAUL MCCAFFREY
SEPTEMBER 1, 2013
A Wells Fargo client in California thought he had hit the jackpot. The 78-year-old husband and father was contacted by people claiming to be from the Costa Rican lottery. They told him he had just won $5 million. But before he could collect the proceeds, there were a few formalities. They first needed some personal information to confirm his identity. And they also needed money to pay off various taxes and fees associated with the winnings.
Although elderly, the client was "all there," according to Ronald Long, director of regulatory affairs at Wells Fargo Advisors and one of the leaders of the firm's elder financial abuse prevention efforts. But there were circumstances in the client's life that made him susceptible to the scam. His 76-year-old wife was in poor health and bedridden. The costs of her treatment were considerable and a continual source of stress. "The thought that he had the chance to get more money to make their lives easier was attractive to him," Long says. "And these people fed on it."
The client supplied the scam artists with his wife's personal information, including her Social Security number. He also sent them $88,000. But they needed more. To transfer the $5 million, the scammers told the client they required one last payment of $50,000. The client did not have the money on hand, so he called his Wells Fargo financial advisor and requested that the funds be moved from his Wells Fargo accounts.
The advisor immediately knew something was wrong, Long recalls. Although it was too late to save the initial $88,000, which had been in non-Wells Fargo accounts, the advisor wasn't going to let the scam proceed any further and refused to go forward with the transfer. With the client convinced that he was one transaction away from $5 million, some testy and stressful exchanges followed. "It's a struggle for a firm like us to have to look a client in the eye and say we can't allow you to have this money," Long says.
So Wells Fargo turned to the client's family, persuading his daughter to get involved. Once she was engaged in the process, the client relented. "We kept the $50,000 from going out," Long says. For the team at Wells Fargo, the incident counted as a small victory in its ongoing battle against elder financial abuse.
About seven million Americans over the age of 65—one in five—have been victimized by financial scams, a 2010 report by Investor Protection Trust found. In 2010, the annual losses by victims of elder financial abuse was estimated at $2.9 billion, up 12% from 2008, according to a MetLife study. Yet a 2011 report by the New York City Department for the Aging found that only one in 44 cases of elder financial abuse is ever reported.
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