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On July 17, the CFPB issued an updated advisory to financial institutions with information on the financial exploitation of older Americans and recommendations on how to prevent and respond to such exploitation. The update urges financial institutions to report to the appropriate authorities whenever they suspect that an older adult is the target or victim of financial exploitation, and recommends that they also file Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs) with the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN). The update builds on an advisory that was previously released by the Bureau in March 2016 (covered by InfoBytes here), which included recommended best practices to help prevent and respond to elder financial exploitation, such as (i) establish protocols for ensuring staff compliance with the Electronic Fund Transfer Act; (ii) train staff to detect the warning signs of financial exploitation and respond appropriately to suspicious events; and (iii) maintain fraud detection systems that provide analyses of the types of products and account activity associated with elder financial exploitation. With the release of the update, Director Kraninger noted that, “[t]he Bureau stands ready to work with federal, state and local authorities and financial institutions to protect older adults from abusive financial practices that rob them of their financial security.”
As previously covered by InfoBytes, in February, the CFPB’s Office of Financial Protection for Older Americans, released a report studying the financial abuse reported in SARs, discussing key facts and trends revealed after the Bureau analyzed 180,000 elder exploitation SARs filed with the FinCEN from 2013 to 2017. Key findings of the report included, (i) SARs filings on elder financial abuse quadrupled from 2013 to 2017, with 63,500 SARs reporting the abuse in 2017; (ii) the average amount of loss to an elder was $34,200, while the average amount of loss to a filer was $16,700; and (iii) more than half of the SARs involved a money transfer.
On March 30, the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon granted a group of car dealerships’ (defendants) summary judgment motion in a putative class action involving claims that the dealership violated Oregon’s Unlawful Trade Practices Act (UTPA) as well as the state’s financial elder-abuse law. The plaintiffs, who all purchased vehicles along with other goods or services from one or more of the defendants, asserted that the defendants allegedly failed to “appropriately disclose [their] specific fees associated with arrangement of financing or the profit margins related to the sale of third-party products and services.” By failing to comply with these disclosure requirements, the plaintiffs alleged that the defendants “wrongfully appropriated money from elderly persons.” Concerning the alleged violations of UTPA, the defendants argued that its section titled “Undisclosed Fee Payments” only applies to referral fees greater than $100 paid to non-employee third-parties and not to other payments made by a dealership to a third party. The court agreed and stated that the defendants’ position was further supported by the state’s official commentary. With regard to the plaintiffs’ other claim concerning deficiencies in the disclosures, the court concluded that “strict recitation of the statute is not required to meet the clear and conspicuous standard,” and that the disclosures in question were clearly visible and easy to understand. Finally, the court granted summary dismissal on the plaintiffs’ claim of elder abuse because the claim was premised on the alleged violations of UTPA, which were dismissed.
On March 18, the Virginia Governor signed HB 1987, which authorizes staff of financial institutions to refuse a transaction, delay a transaction, or refuse to disburse transaction funds if the staff member (i) has a good faith belief that the transaction may involve the financial exploitation of an aged or incapacitated adult; or (ii) files a report or has knowledge that a report has been filed with the responsible local authority that states in good faith that the transaction may involve financial exploitation of an aged or incapacitated adult. Unless authorized by a court, the bill allows the continued refusal for up to 30 days after the date the transaction was initially requested. The financial institution and its staff are immune from civil or criminal liability under the bill, absent gross negligence or willful misconduct. The bill is effective July 1.
On March 12, the Virginia governor signed HB 2225, which amends the state’s law relating to financial exploitation of adults, to provide that any financial institution staff who “suspects that an adult has been exploited financially” may now provide supporting information and records to the local department of social services, in addition to simply reporting the suspected exploitation as provided for under current law. The amendment is effective July 1.
On March 7, the FTC announced a new legal action and a final settlement issued against individuals and their operations for allegedly engaging in schemes that exploit elderly Americans. The actions are part of an enforcement sweep spearheaded by the DOJ in conjunction with, among others, the FBI, the FTC, Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations, and the Louisiana Attorney General, which—according to a press release issued the same day by the DOJ—is the largest-ever coordinated nationwide elder fraud sweep, involving multiple cases, over 260 defendants, and more than two million allegedly victimized U.S. Citizens, most of whom are elderly.
According to the FTC’s complaint, the company used deceptive tactics to convince consumers, the majority of whom were older, that their computers were infected with viruses in order to sell expensive and unnecessary computer repair services in violation of the FTC Act, the Telemarketing Sales Rule, and the Restore Online Shoppers’ Confidence Act. Specifically, the company allegedly used internet ads to target consumers looking for email password assistance and once they contacted the consumers, the telemarketers would run phony “diagnostic” tests that falsely showed the consumer’s computer was in danger and needed software and services to be fixed. On February 27, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Utah, granted a temporary restraining order against the company and its founder.
The FTC also announced a proposed settlement with a sweepstake operation that allegedly bilked consumers out of tens of millions of dollars through personalized mailers that falsely implied that the recipients had won or were likely to win a cash prize if they paid a fee. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the FTC announced the charges against the company in February 2018, alleging that consumers, most of whom were elderly, paid more than $110 million towards the scheme. The final settlement not only requires the operation to turn over $30 million in assets and cash to provide redress to the victims, but also permanently bans the operators from similar prize promotions in the future. The proposed settlement has not yet been approved by the court.
On February 27, the CFPB’s Office of Financial Protection for Older Americans released Suspicious Activity Reports on Elder Financial Exploitation: Issues and Trends, which discusses key facts and trends revealed after the Bureau analyzed 180,000 elder exploitation Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs) filed with Financial Crimes Enforcement Network from 2013 to 2017. Key highlights from the report include:
- SARs filings on elder financial abuse quadrupled from 2013 to 2017, with 63,500 SARs reporting the abuse in 2017.
- Nearly 80 percent of the SAR filings involved a financial loss to an elder or to the filing institution. The average amount of loss to an elder was $34,200, while the average amount of loss to a filer was $16,700.
- Financial losses were greater when the elder knew the suspect, with an average loss of $50,000 when the elder knew the suspect compared to $17,000 with a stranger.
- More than half of the SARs involved a money transfer.
- Less than one-third of elder abuse SARs acknowledge that the financial institution reported the activity to a local, state, or federal authority.
On October 18, the FTC released a report to Congress outlining the agency’s comprehensive efforts to protect older consumers in the marketplace from fraud, identity theft, imposter scams, deceptive credit schemes, and other unlawful practices. The report, Protecting Older Consumers 2017-2018: A Report of the Federal Trade Commission, discusses (i) scams that target older consumers, including technical support scams; business imposter scams; prizes, sweepstakes, and lottery scams; and family or friend imposter scams; (ii) key FTC enforcement actions taken against companies that allegedly engaged in deceptive schemes that targeted or affected older consumers; and (iii) outreach and education efforts, including fraud prevention campaigns and resources for older consumers. Specifically, the report contains analysis of consumer complaint data from 2017, which revealed that older consumers (especially those over 80) were more likely to report fraud than younger people, and that when they reported losing money to fraud, they lost significantly more money than consumers in their twenties. (See previously InfoBytes coverage here on the FTC’s annual summary of consumer complaints received in 2017).
FTC files charges against operations that target elder Americans as part of DOJ’s elder fraud enforcement sweep
On February 22, the FTC announced two separate legal actions taken against individuals and their operations for allegedly engaging in schemes exploiting elder Americans. The two cases are part of an enforcement sweep spearheaded by the DOJ in conjunction with the FBI, the FTC, the Kansas Attorney General, and foreign law enforcement agencies, which—according to a press release issued the same day by the DOJ—includes cases from around the globe involving over 250 defendants accused of victimizing more than a million U.S. citizens, the majority of whom are elderly. Charges were brought against both transnational criminal organizations and individuals who allegedly engaged in schemes including (i) mass mailings; (ii) telemarketing and investment frauds; and (iii) guardian identity theft.
According to the FTC’s announcement, charges were brought against two individuals and their sweepstake operation accusing them of allegedly bilking consumers out of tens of millions of dollars though personalized mailers that falsely implied the recipients had won or were likely to win a cash prize if they paid a fee. Since 2013, the FTC claims consumers have paid more than $110 million towards the scheme. The second complaint was brought against a group of telemarketers who claimed their software and technical support services would prevent cyber threats. However, the FTC alleges that the telemarketers instead charged up to tens of thousands of dollars for “junk” software or older software available for free or for a much lower price, and communicated “phony” reasons for consumers to purchase additional software to avoid the risk of new threats.
On October 18, President Trump signed the Elder Abuse Prevention and Prosecution Act, which establishes new requirements aimed at improving the DOJ’s response to elder abuse crimes. Among other things, S 178 expands data collection and information sharing provisions to prevent financial crimes committed against seniors. The law also broadens the federal criminal code to include “email marketing” fraud, such as marketing measures designed to induce the commitment to a loan. Other notable provisions include enhanced penalties for fraud and increased training for federal investigators and prosecutors. Further, the law requires the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection and the DOJ to appoint elder justice coordinators to oversee enforcement, consumer education efforts, and policy activities related to elder justice issues.
CFPB, Treasury, and FinCEN Release Memorandum Emphasizing Financial Institutions’ Role in Preventing Elder Financial Exploitation
On August 30, the CFPB, Treasury Department, and Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (the agencies) issued a joint memorandum concerning elder financial exploitation (EFE). The agencies note that EFE—which is defined as “the illegal or improper use of an older person’s funds, property or assets”—has become the most common form of elder abuse in the U.S. The Memorandum on Financial Institution and Law Enforcement Efforts to Combat Elder Financial Exploitation emphasizes that financial institutions can play a key role in detecting, responding to, and preventing EFE, encourages collaboration with law enforcement and local adult protective service agencies to facilitate the timely response to reports, and outlines guidance relating to the filing of suspicious activity reports (SARs). According to the memorandum, “SARs can play an important role in the fight against EFE by providing information and references to any supporting documentation that can trigger an investigation, support an ongoing investigation, or identify previously unknown subjects and entities.” The agencies cautioned, however, that “access to SARs and their use is restricted under federal law” and that law enforcement agencies should contact FinCEN for assistance in SAR-related inquiries.
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