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Words: Barry Strader
June 15 is World Elder Abuse Awareness Day.
Elder abuse comes in many forms. Perhaps the most common is financial abuse. In most cases, the abuser is someone the senior knows and trusts.
“It’s a friend. It’s a family member. A caregiver. An acquaintance. The senior doesn’t always recognize that they’re being taken advantage of,” said Anne-Marie Lambert, senior manager of operations at ATB Financial (pictured above, centre).
In many cases, people will steal money from their elderly, vulnerable, trusting parents by convincing them to give them power of attorney, provide access to bank accounts, or just write cheques, often leaving their parents high and dry.
“We had an elderly couple who put their daughter on a joint account,” recalled Lambert, who investigates cases of financial abuse for ATB. “They didn’t quite understand that their daughter would have complete access. When they noticed that there were no more funds left, they came into the branch to talk about it. The front line staff member went through their account history and explained it. There was a bit of a language barrier, so we called in social services to help with translation so we could explain fully to the customers what all those banking terms meant. They were able to resolve the situation.”
Sadly, it’s all too easy for Lambert to come up with multiple examples of financial elder abuse. Another story involved a physically challenged customer who, in advance of going to the hospital for several months, gave a close friend access to her bank accounts.
“The friend took advantage, stole money and fully acknowledged it,” said Lambert.
“He even wrote her an IOU saying he took this money while she was in the hospital. We did our best to protect the customer by closing some old accounts and changing over some direct deposits and withdrawals. I referred that case to a special police unit and they did end up charging the friend.”
Sometimes, financial abuse can happen by way of an online romance scam. It’s where someone meets another person online and conversations go back and forth for several months. Once trust is established, the fraudster, usually overseas, asks for some money to help with the promise of coming to Alberta to visit, or assist with a health problem or a family issue. In most cases, the victim doesn’t recognize that they are being scammed.
That’s where ATB team members can help.
“Our team members are very adept at noticing wire transfers or electronic funds transfers from people who have never done a wire transfer in their lives,” said Lambert. “Our team member knows they take out $200 a week and that’s their spending money and all of a sudden there’s this large transfer overseas to help out a friend they’ve met online. Unfortunately, we’re not always able to stop those transfers when they happen, but we’ve had a lot of success in recalling some of the wires and stopping future ones from going.”
To help our team members spot potential financial abuse—of seniors, those who are mentally or physically challenged, or newcomers to Canada—ATB trains staff about the warning signs of financial abuse and how to intervene, if needed. Team members watch for indicators like:
- -Changes in spending habits
- -Bills not being paid or paid later than usual
- -A new friend or family member who appears out of the blue
- -Addition of a joint person on an account who was not previously known
- -Out of the ordinary transactions such as large wire transfers
- -Power of attorney awarded despite the senior being fully capable
Once developed, ATB shared its staff training program with all other financial institutions in Alberta.
“It’s really centred around front line team members who have everyday interactions with customers, who ask those good questions and find out the story behind the transaction,” said Lambert. “While we don’t have a legal obligation, we have a moral and ethical obligation to do the right thing.”
Lambert said what makes the most difference in stopping and preventing financial abuse is the fact ATB team members truly care about their customers.
“Our customers are not numbers,” she said. “They’re people with needs and wants and difficulties and troubles. Our team members care enough to talk about these things with their customers. They know their customers so well that they’re able to recognize these red flags and indicators. It makes me sad that these cases happen, but we can do something about it.”