AUGUSTA — A training program designed to help bank and credit union employees identify and stop financial exploitation of older Mainers was launched Monday.

Senior$afe, which has been in development for about 18 months, will help employees of financial institutions identify the warning signs of financial abuse and provide information to the potential elderly victim, or report their concerns to law enforcement and various agencies involved with protecting elders.

Bank and credit union employees are in a unique position to identify unusual financial transactions because they know their customers and habits, said Lynne Caswell, co-chairwoman of the Maine Council for Elder Abuse Prevention and the legal services developer for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Aging and Disability Services.

“The mission is to help prevent abuse,” Caswell said at a news conference in Augusta. “Financial employees are in a unique position on the front lines to see incidents or suspicions of financial abuse.”

The program was developed in collaboration with the aging services and regulatory divisions of DHHS, the Maine Bankers Association, the Maine Credit Union League and Maine Legal Services for the Elderly.

Training for about 200 bank and credit union workers will begin this week. Those individuals will go back to their offices and train others to look for red flags, such as inconsistent signatures on checks or sudden, large withdrawals that are unusual for the client. The individual financial institutions will absorb the cost of training their employees.

Financial exploitation of elders is a growing and underreported problem that’s getting state and national attention. Nationally, seniors lose an estimated $2.9 billion per year to financial abuse, and Maine faces a greater challenge than most states because it has a rapidly aging population.

In addition to training employees, Senior$afe will provide brochures to educate elders and members of the public about the signs of financial exploitation and groups to contact for help.

“It touches all of us. It harms our seniors and harms our economy,” Caswell said.

Financial institutions are ideally situated to help fight the problem since they are in a position to see the most common types of elder exploitation. A study by the Utah Division of Aging and Adult Services found that the top methods used to exploit seniors were bank withdrawals (44 percent), credit card misuse or identity theft (35 percent), stealing or forging checks (25 percent) and car theft (19 percent). Some cases included more than one method, resulting in duplication in the percentages, the report said.

The study found that about one in five cases of suspected abuse came to Adult Protective Services from financial institution employees. Only 2 percent of the referrals came from the victims themselves.

In 25 states, financial institutions are required to report suspicious withdrawals from seniors’ accounts or any other unusual activity, according to the American Bankers Association. Maine is not among them, the association said.

The Senior$afe program was made possible after several federal government agencies signed an agreement involving the interpretation of the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act of 1999, which affects privacy and confidentiality laws for financial institutions, Caswell said.

“Training may be possible all over the country now, but Maine is really leading the way on this,” said Jaye Martin, executive director for Maine Legal Services for the Elderly.

The issue of elder abuse and exploitation has drawn increasing attention in Maine. Last month, the Maine Summit on Aging, hosted by House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, and the Maine Council on Aging attracted more than 370 people to the Augusta Civic Center to help develop an action plan to address a variety of aging concerns, including health care, housing, transportation and legal protections.

Vulnerability to financial exploitation increases with age, and Maine’s senior population is growing quickly. Maine has the oldest population by median age in the country, and by 2030, more than a quarter of the state’s population is expected to be 65 or older.

The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram is examining various impacts of Maine’s rapidly aging population in a special investigative series, “The Challenge of Our Age.” One segment of the series focused on financial exploitation by family members.

Earlier this month, the Maine Attorney General’s Office said it would form a task force to improve and increase prosecutions of financial exploitation cases and other crimes against older Mainers.

That task force will look for ways to encourage seniors to report abuse, especially when perpetrators are family members and other caregivers. The panel also will consider ways to improve the practices of law enforcement professionals, prosecutors and other court officials.

Last year, the Legislature passed L.D. 527, sponsored by Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, a former Cumberland County sheriff. That measure clarifies state law to say that people with dementia and other cognitive impairments cannot consent to financially abusive conduct by caregivers that would be criminal without the consent.

Jessica Hall can be contacted at 791-6316 or at:

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