By CHRISTINA WOOD
Of the Baker City Herald
One of the fastest growing crimes in the nation has the potential to be one of Baker Countys highest statistics in the near future, according to Steven Schneider, an attorney with the Oregon Senior andamp; Disabled Services Division.
Schneider talked about fraud and the financial abuse of senior citizens during a recent workshop at the Community Connection Senior Center.
The workshop was designed to help bank and credit union tellers recognize the signs of possible abuse and fraud of their senior customers.
Its just good customer service to identify these cases and report them before the victim can be exploited, Schneider said. New state laws allow banks and financial institutions to report possible cases to Senior andamp; Disabled Services without fear of prosecution.
Schneider said that in the opinion of state legal experts, this law will allow banks to become more proactive in protecting their customers even in cases were the customer is not aware of the abuse.
According to Sherry Shaw, assistant district manager of Senior andamp; Disabled Services in Baker, Union and Wallowa counties, Baker is one of the 33 counties in Oregon that have formed a multi-disciplinary team concerned with the problems of elder abuse.
With nearly one in four Baker County residents projected to be age 55 or older by 2010, the crime of elder financial abuse is expected to rise here. Statewide, nearly 959,000 people will have reached senior citizenship by then.
The most common ways of scamming seniors out of their hard-earned money are telemarketing, sweepstakes and home repair scams, Schneider said.
A video presentation demonstrated the ease with which some unscrupulous people had cheated seniors out of thousands of dollars.
Many seniors (and even non-seniors) have been cheated by phone telephone scams with free offers of trips, prizes and investment opportunities.
Basically, if it sounds too good to be true, it is, Schneider said. If the caller tells you that you have won something but must pay a fee for shipping and handling up front, then it is likely a scam.
Sweepstakes, especially those that originate outside the United States, are an especially rich source of money for those preying on seniors.
Even if the scam only nets them $5 from each victim, there are sometimes thousands of people contacted. If even one in five sends the money it can net thousands of dollars for the crooks, he added.
Unfortunately, Schneider said, the most common perpetrator is a member of the senior citizens own family, often a son or daughter who is cheating them out of their retirement funds.
He advised tellers and clerks to be alert for unexpectedly large withdrawals from senior accounts through use of debit or credit cards in the seniors name by family members.
Many of these withdrawals are legitimate, used for the benefit of the senior, Schneider said, but it is easy for someone to divert funds, as little as $20-$30 at a time, to other purposes. This can slowly drain accounts, especially when seniors live on fixed incomes from Social Security or retirement funds.
Four area banks participated in the workshop by sending representatives. The banks included Pioneer Bank, Wells Fargo, US Bank and Western Bank.
Also present were several people from Senior andamp; Disabled Services, Thom VanArtsdalen from Parole andamp; Probation and Mary Jo Carpenter, program manager for Baker County Community Connections.
Shaw said these last two people were on the Baker Adult Abuse Team along with representatives from Baker City Police, Baker County Sheriffs office, Oregon State Police and St. Elizabeth Health Services.
The team meets monthly, she said, to share reports on investigations into elder abuse. Her office is charged with investigating allegations of abuse and often works with the police agencies in the area.
Schneider said the new reporting law was a one-way street. Financial institutes can voice their concerns to Shaws office but may not find out the outcome until they read about it in the record section of the newspaper.
He said bank tellers were front-line soldiers in the war against senior financial abuse. He advised them to get to know your customers and recognize their spending patterns.
Talk to them, take an interest in them, in their lives, he said. Often the elderly customer may be under pressure from someone taking their money or may even be confused about why they are withdrawing the funds in the first place.
The senior citizen may not even be aware they are being robbed of their money. The video demonstrated this with a case where an elderly customer was taken to the bank by two rough-looking young men.
The video advised bank employees to alert their supervisors, who then can separate the customer from the people accompanying them. In private, the supervisor can question the customer without endangering the senior and without interference from the people pressuring them.
Schneider, who has seen the video many times, said he was in Portland one day and spotted one of the actors from the video. Schneider confessed that he so identified the actor with the role that he caught himself reaching for his cell phone to report the criminal sighting.
Shaw said the workshop was the first one in Baker County for bank employees and that her office planned to present a second workshop later for family members and caregivers to alert them to possible financial fraud or abuse of those in their care.
Scheduling information on the workshop will be published as soon as it is available. If you are interested in receiving information on the upcoming workshop, call Shaws office at 523-5846 and leave your name, address and telephone number.