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Illinois: Working hard to protect seniors

Last month, my team and I traveled to Chicago, Illinois, to learn more about that state’s efforts to protect seniors from financial abuse and to share information about some of our current projects.

Why Illinois? Estimates from the Illinois Department on Aging indicate that 58 percent of reported elder abuse in Illinois last year was financial exploitation. And, sadly, that estimate is probably low. Seniors are most often exploited by their family members or other people they trust, and most of it goes unreported.

Illinois recently passed a law requiring that employees of state banks and other state financial institutions receive training on how to recognize signs of senior financial exploitation. These front-line workers know the everyday banking habits of their customers, so they are well-positioned to notice unusual actions that could indicate financial abuse. While in Chicago, I sat down with Manuel Flores, Director of the Division on Banking at the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation (IDFPR). Manuel and his team are working to help bankers find the best ways to train their staffs to recognize the warning signs of senior exploitation. More work like theirs is needed, and I applaud IDFPR for its commitment to this issue.

I also joined a discussion about senior financial protection hosted by Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan at the Chicago Police Department. The event included a broad collection of stakeholders from state and city government, non-profit service providers, law enforcement, and others.

I spoke to them about three of our office’s current projects: a plan to create easy-to-understand guidance for caregivers who handle finances for vulnerable adults, efforts to help seniors choose financial advisors, and a study that will help us learn more about the ways consumers understand and shop for reverse mortgages.

I then asked the group to share their ideas and concerns with me and my team. Officers from the Chicago Police Department raised one of the issues I hear wherever I travel: Seniors need help learning how to talk openly with their families when they think they have been scammed. Too often, shame and embarrassment keep seniors from reporting financial exploitation. Erin Weir, from the nonprofit group Age Options , noted that they have had some success using peer-to-peer training to teach seniors about talking openly, and she encouraged us to check in with her organization’s website for ideas. Several participants also expressed their desire for a single, online source for national and state helplines for senior issues, another suggestion I have heard frequently in my travels.

Later, John Holton, Director of the Illinois Department on Aging, and a diverse group of aging experts and senior-service providers discussed with me their work on senior financial protection. Many participants shared concerns about fraud and scams aimed at the elderly, from sweepstakes scams to identity theft and fraudulent debt collectors.

Assistant State’s Attorney Kathleen Bankhead said that public service announcements are a great way to reach seniors on a variety of issues, including financial protection matters. Cao K. O of the Asian American Federation agreed, and added that foreign language versions are important to reach people who don’t speak English. And Judge Patricia Banks told us about the Cook County Circuit Court division dedicated to elder law matters as well as their task force to train judges on elder law issues.

Illinois is a leader in elder abuse issues, and I was energized by the commitment and passion I experienced in Chicago among those working to protect Illinois seniors. I am proud to call them partners as we work toward our common goal of protecting older consumers.

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