At the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, we are working to make financial markets function better for this country’s 320 million consumers. Of special interest to us are the special needs and circumstances of older Americans. We are devoting great efforts to protecting them from financial exploitation, promoting their economic security, and educating both them and those who care for them about potential dangers. In fact, our Office for Older Americans is the only arm of the federal government specifically dedicated to the financial health of our seniors.
Fifty-seven million Americans are now age 62 or older, and another 10,000 join them every day. Many face threats from financial predators that can harm the unprepared and unprotected. Elder financial exploitation has been called the crime of the 21st century, and fighting it has never been more urgent. So today, the Consumer Bureau is calling on banks and credit unions to do their part to protect older Americans. We are releasing an advisory and specific recommendations to help financial institutions prevent, recognize, report, and respond to financial abuse. This most common form of elder abuse is also one of the least reported. When seniors fall victim to a scam by a stranger or to theft by a family member, they may be too embarrassed or too frail to pursue legal action, or even report they have suffered harm. So it is crucial that others know how to look out for them.
Financial institutions are especially well-positioned to take on this role and prevent such fraud. Why is that so? In part it is because they know their customers well and often have more opportunity to deal with older consumers face to face when they engage in transactions. They also are in a unique position to detect when an elder account holder has been targeted or victimized. And when they do identify problems, they are in position to do something about it. Just as a reminder, we joined with seven other financial regulators three years ago to clarify that financial institutions generally are able to report suspected financial abuse of older adults to the appropriate authorities without violating any privacy provisions in the federal banking laws.
For me, this is a personal issue; a month ago, my Dad turned 98. When he was a kid, he lost the money he had earned from his paper route in a bank failure during the Depression. Now, the Consumer Bureau is aiming to protect older Americans like my father from the illegal or improper use of their funds, property, or assets. And perhaps just as important, we are working to protect them from being victimized by wrongs that have no price tag: the loss of their health, their dignity, their quality of life, and their faith and trust in others.
The team members in the Bureau’s Office for Older Americans have traveled the country listening to the concerns of seniors. Based on what we have heard, we have issued studies, guides, and advisories to arm seniors and their caregivers with the information and tools they need to protect themselves and their precious retirement savings.
The need is very real. Older Americans make attractive targets for financial exploitation because many have accumulated some wealth in the form of retirement savings or home equity. They can be isolated and lonely, and some may have impaired physical or mental capacity that makes them especially vulnerable.
The advisory we are releasing today presents an extensive set of best practices to help banks and credit unions prevent or halt the financial abuse of seniors. The recommendations are specific and actionable. But let me be clear, the recommendations are not binding regulations; they are simply suggestions we urge institutions to consider in serving their customers. For starters, we think financial institutions should train everyone – from top management to frontline staff – to prevent, detect, and respond to abuse, using procedures that can be tailored to their own sizes and situations. Such training should cover the warning signs of financial exploitation and how to respond to suspicious events. To that end, we are also encouraging the use of fraud detection technologies to help spot those warning signs, which may differ from conventionally accepted patterns of suspicious activity. If exploitation is suspected, financial institutions can and should promptly report it to the relevant federal, state, and local authorities. And we encourage banks and credit unions to work closely with local Adult Protective Services and law enforcement to enhance prevention and response efforts.
Banks and credit unions should also offer more age-friendly services that can enhance protections, such as informing consumers about how to plan for incapacity, offering account features such as opt-in limits on cash withdrawals or geographic transactions, and providing alerts for specific account activity. They also can enable older consumers to consent in advance to having their information be shared with a trusted relative or friend when the consumer appears to be at risk.
The advisory and report we are issuing today highlight the opportunities for financial institutions to protect older consumers from abuse and exploitation. So I am pleased to report that many are already taking some of the steps that we included in the advisory, or are considering other ways to protect their senior customers. We appreciate their willingness to share their knowledge and expertise to help us tackle this important issue. And we will continue our work to ensure older Americans have the economic security they need, and the peace of mind they deserve.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is a 21st century agency that helps consumer finance markets work by making rules more effective, by consistently and fairly enforcing those rules, and by empowering consumers to take more control over their economic lives. For more information, visit consumerfinance.gov.