Louisiana and federal officials on Thursday held a town hall meeting to raise awareness of the dangers of financial exploitation of the elderly and new protections in state law that may make it easier to prevent.
"When people prey on the elderly, they are preying on our most vulnerable, when they should be enjoying that time in their life," Attorney General Jeff Landry said during the meeting in Baton Rouge, which hosted the acting leader of the nation’s consumer watchdog agency, Mick Mulvaney.
Financial exploitation against anyone 60 or older or adults with disabilities is a felony.
The Louisiana Legislature this year enhanced its laws regarding reporting suspected abuse. Under the new law that took effect Oct. 1, banks and other financial institutions have more authority to try to thwart abuse by delaying transactions or reporting suspicious activity to authorities without facing legal repercussions. It also encourages banks to train tellers and other employees signs to watch for, but doesn't require such training.
Robert Taylor, CEO of the Louisiana Bankers Association, said the new law will enhance the ability of financial institutions to act when they suspect a customer is being abused but is unable to speak up. "Often when an elderly person does have something happen to them, they are embarrassed," he said.
He said it will especially be helpful in rural communities that rely on community banks, where tellers are more familiar with customers.
"They are very aware of this," Taylor said. "This is a not uncommon thing."
Rep. Thomas Carmody, a Shreveport Republican who chairs the House Commerce Committee, sponsored the legislation. He said his mother is in her 80s and he would hate the thought of her falling prey to a scam.
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"You can see, just in our own individual worlds, we're all being targeted with spam and scams," he said. "The idea that our senior citizens would be exploited..."
Carmody said it was also important that the state walk a line between protecting individuals, while still protecting banking institutions from liability when they fail to prevent fraud.
"When we receive cases of exploitation, a lot of times they are family members," said Ebony Phillips, the manager of the Elderly Protective Services division in the Governor's Office of Elderly Affairs. "It affects them emotionally, as well as their long-term ability to live in the community and thrive successfully."
People who have their savings taken often don't have an option to earn it back, Phillips noted.
"The exploitation can be almost detrimental," she said.
Anthony Welcher, the head of the federal bureau's external affairs division, said financial exploitation is a growing problem but often hard to quantify as it is believed to be widely under-reported.
"It's really one that touches us or will touch our friends at some point in our lifetimes," he said. "Unfortunately, we don't know about it, many times, until it's too late."
Baton Rouge was the second stop on a tour that Mulvaney began shortly after President Donald Trump named him acting head of Consumer Financial Protection Bureau earlier this year.
Mulvaney, who also serves as Trump's budget director, has faced some pushback in the CFPB role, amid consumer advocates concerns that his priorities align more closely with business interests.
During Thursday's forum highlighting elder abuse, Mulvaney said his own family has been targeted by an apparent scam – one that is pretty commonly used against the seniors.
While Mulvaney and his wife and children were out of the country, Mulvaney's father received a call saying that one of his grandchildren had been in an accident and he needed to wire money immediately for the emergency. He called Mulvaney directly and discovered that there was no emergency and he had been targeted by scammers.
"Think about how sophisticated the scammers have got to be to do that," Mulvaney said of the details they knew of his family's whereabouts and how to contact the grandparents. "Very, very sophisticated, and, unfortunately, often very, very successful."
"The level of depravity of these folks knows no bounds," he added.
Jo-Ann Deal, supervisor of the Better Business Bureau's Monroe branch, said another common form of abuse happens when seniors give caretakers their debit cards and pin numbers to run errands. If that person takes advantage of the situation, it can be difficult for the senior to speak up about what is happening.
"It's a matter of educating and networking," she said. "Quite often seniors are reluctant to give out information when they know their own children or friends have taken advantage of them."
Deal said she heard of one local woman who had sent an "astronomical" amount of money to pay for someone she had been corresponding with to travel to Louisiana. Her case became known because a local law enforcement officer who was working part-time as airport security noticed that she had been sitting all day at the airport. The person she had given money to never arrived.
"She needed counseling after this was over," Deal said.
Harold Bartholomew, who prosecutes elder abuse cases in St. Tammany and Washington parishes, said he would encourage people who suspect exploitation is taking place to first reach out to the Office of Elderly Services. "The safest thing you can do is report," he said.
Most of the case workers in the Elderly Affairs office have a social work background, so may be more sensitive to vetting out potential cases, rather than law enforcement.
Phillips noted the office guarantees confidentiality and whistle blowers are shielded from lawsuits.