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Older Americans Need to be Armed Against Financial Fraud

According to the Office of the Maine Attorney General, there are an estimated 14,000 incidents of elder abuse annually in Maine and at least 84 percent go unreported. There are many types of elder abuse, including financial exploitation, and it’s important to increase our understanding of how to prevent and spot elder abuse.

A recent study by the MetLife Mature Market Institute found that Americans over the age of 65 lost more than $2.9 billion to financial abuse and exploitation in 2010 – a 12 percent increase from 2008. Unfortunately, because elder financial abuse and exploitation is underreported, these estimates are probably low.

I joined the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) in October to help older Americans identify and avoid unfair, deceptive, and abusive financial practices. Since then, I have traveled from coast to coast to hear about seniors’ experiences in the consumer financial marketplace. I hope you’ll join me at the Portland Public Library on Monday, Dec. 12, at 10:30 a.m. for a town hall meeting.

During my visits around the country, I’ve met with seniors, state law enforcement officials, adult protective services workers, and groups that work with seniors. They all said the same thing – we need to build awareness about elder financial abuse and exploitation. Some of the specific challenges they raised include the underreporting of fraudulent and other abusive practices, the need for more robust centralized reporting of such practices, and the need for more training on elder abuse and exploitation for law enforcement, financial institutions, and others.

One heartbreaking case I heard during a recent trip was a story shared with me by a woman named Linda, whose mother lost her entire life savings – a total of $300,000 – to a series of financial scams. When Linda found out, 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.

I have often heard Linda and others talk about the shame they, or their friends or family members, felt when they learned they were victims of fraud. One of my goals is to give seniors a forum to speak up about their experiences and speak out to help prevent others from falling victim to them.

The CFPB’s goal is to expand, coordinate, and promote the efforts of senior groups and community organizations, faith-based groups, financial services providers, adult protective services agencies, and state and federal agencies to help older Americans. There is great work being done by many of these groups right now – the CFPB can coordinate and streamline those efforts and help amplify them where needed.

The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, which established the CFPB, directed the Office for Older Americans to monitor the certifications and designations used by financial advisors. We are conducting research and recommending ways to more effectively educate seniors about financial issues. Our office also works with the Women’s Institute for a Secure Retirement, an especially important partnership; nearly half of women over 62 will outlive their savings and are more frequent victims of financial abuse and exploitation than men.

As a former state Attorney General, I know that it is not enough to have strong consumer protection laws on the books. State and federal officials must also enforce those laws to protect consumers from bad practices and financial predators. Further, it is vital for seniors and other consumers to have the information, skills, and confidence to make sound financial decisions for themselves and their loved ones.

I look forward to my visit to Maine to hear from residents of the Pine Tree state about how we can work together to give seniors the information they need to make sound financial decisions and protect themselves from fraud and financial abuse.

This article originally appeared in the PORTLAND PRESS HERALD under the title Maine Voices: Older Americans need to be armed against financial fraud .