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Lessons from the road

Since starting work at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) three weeks ago, I have traveled from coast to coast to meet with seniors who have suffered from financial scams. In my travels, I have gained many valuable insights and heard too many stories of people taking advantage of the elderly. I plan on bringing these stories to Congress today when I testify before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Financial Institutions and Consumer Protection. I hope you will be able to watch online. To do so, visit the Senate Banking Committee website and click “Watch Live Hearing.”

During my trip to California and to Florida, I spoke with many people who expressed the need for increased national coordination on the issue of elder financial abuse. And although several agencies, including the Administration on Aging, are working hard to address this issue, it is clear that increased coordination could help promote the good ideas and practices already in place across the country.

At a roundtable in San Diego and a conference in Los Angeles, I met with local leaders and experts in elder financial abuse – including district attorneys, law enforcement officials, adult protective services, non-profit groups, and industry representatives – who brought their unique experiences, perspectives, and concerns to the discussion. One such concern was the underreporting of elder financial abuse. Only a small percentage of total cases of financial exploitation of the elderly actually reach law enforcement.

I was particularly moved by a heartbreaking story that a woman named Linda shared with me about her mother, who lost her entire life savings – a total of $300,000 – to a series of financial scams. Three years ago, Linda’s mother began playing the sweepstakes over the phone and by mail. When Linda found out about this, she changed her mother’s telephone number and mailing address. But the scam artists continued to track her down. Finally, a bankruptcy attorney called Linda to tell her that her mother was in trouble. And, since her mother had already lost almost everything, Linda didn’t know where to turn.

While Linda’s story is sad, I’m encouraged that she is speaking out. Not everyone has to share their trouble so publicly, but reporting scams to your local law enforcement or telling your story can help.

Next, I traveled to Florida to meet with securities administrators and other dedicated professionals from all 50 states who consider seniors’ financial issues from a different perspective. My time in Florida demonstrated a critical need to connect with seniors in rural parts of our country, and I heard ideas for how we might reach out. Several people shared stories about seniors who faced financial abuse from the very people who had a responsibility to protect them. Everyone present agreed about the critical need for collaboration as we fight scams – to prevent them in the first place by educating seniors, and to bring scammers to justice after the fact with strong enforcement.

It is clear that elder financial abuse and exploitation is a serious problem, and as the first federal agency dedicated to seniors’ financial protection, we have a unique opportunity to address it. I look forward to continuing this dialogue with seniors as I plan more trips around the country in the upcoming weeks and months.

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