Consumer Confidential: Banks should do more to protect seniors from 'grandparent scam'
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Consumer Confidential: Banks should do more to protect seniors from 'grandparent scam'

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It's time for businesses to stop wringing their hands over the aggressiveness and cleverness of scammers, and to be much more assertive in protecting people from fraud - especially seniors.

I say this after speaking with Montrose, Calif., resident Sal Macaione, 79, who fell victim the other day to what's known as the "grandparent scam." If you're unfamiliar with this particularly ugly racket, I'll run down the details in a moment.

What really sizzled my bacon here is Macaione's bank - Banc of California - being little more than a bystander as the fraud unfolded.

What I mean by that is when Macaione showed up at the Pasadena branch to wire $27,000 to the scammers, he says the teller barely batted an eye at a questionable transaction that would wipe out nearly two-thirds of Macaione's savings account.

"He asked what the transfer was for," Macaione recalled. "I told him it was personal."

And that was that. The money disappeared, never to be seen again.

Kathy Stokes, director of fraud prevention programs for AARP, said, "Banks are in a difficult position" because, by law, they're required to fulfill an adult customer's transaction request.

At the same time, she said, financial institutions can and should do more to intervene when fraud is suspected.

"We believe a lot of these types of scams can be stopped in their tracks," Stokes said. "Anyone in a position to be an intermediary should be stepping up."

There are many areas where businesses could be doing more to protect customers.

Phone companies, for example, say they're hard at work trying to reduce the volume of robocalls and scam calls. However, as I've reported, it could be years before current measures make a dent in the problem.

Social media platforms such as Facebook could be doing a lot more to reduce the volume of misinformation circulating online. But they tiptoe around the problem, insisting their commitment to free speech is greater than their responsibility to publish truthful and accurate information.

Protecting seniors from financial abuse should be a top priority for banks - and most do have programs to educate people and improve financial literacy. Many banks also train staff to recognize potential fraud.

But they're not doing enough, as Macaione's case makes clear.

And we're talking big bucks. The American Bankers Assn. estimates that senior financial abuse costs victims nearly $3 billion a year. That figure encompasses a wide variety of misdeeds, from scams to scurrilous behavior by family members.

The grandparent scam is particularly insidious because it preys upon older folks' sense of duty. Scammers know that if they say the right words, a senior will hand over almost any amount of money to do right by a loved one.

Macaione said he received a call from someone who sounded like his nephew, who said he'd been arrested on a drug-related charge in Florida and needed $27,000 to post bail.

Also on the call was someone identifying himself as a lawyer named Donald Underwood, who mustered enough legal jargon to make the situation sound credible.

Spoiler alert: There's no Donald Underwood listed on the website of the Florida Bar.

Macaione has no idea why he was targeted or how the scammers knew the name of his nephew. A Google search provides no obvious connections.

That said, Macaione acknowledged that when he received the call, the voice at the other end said, "Hi, Grandpa," not "Hi, Uncle Sal." Macaione said he doesn't recall volunteering his nephew's name, but the scammer quickly used it to identify himself.

In hindsight, Macaione knows it was foolish to fall for such a ploy. But in the heat of the moment, with a family member appearing to urgently need his help, he didn't hesitate.

The scammers provided account information for the wire transfer. They also instructed Macaione to keep mum about what was happening and not tell anyone.

Macaione said he rushed to his bank, wired the money and awaited word from his nephew that he was out of jail. After 24 hours passed, he called his nephew's home in Murrietta.

Needless to say, the nephew wasn't in Florida and wasn't in any trouble.

Macaione said he reported the incident to the Banc of California branch manager, who said the bank would investigate. Macaione also filed a police report.

A Banc of California spokesman declined to discuss Macaione's case.

"The bank takes extensive effort to protect its clients, while balancing our legal obligations to execute transactions on behalf of clients as requested by clients," the spokesman said via email.

Rob Rowe, vice president and senior counsel for the American Bankers Association, said banks take fraud such as the grandparent scam very seriously.

"Bankers are definitely doing everything they can to prevent these types of issues," he told me.

A recent report from the association said training for bank workers to spot and prevent fraud "is now largely standard." Even so, Macaione's experience shows that people are still being victimized.

To be sure, many seniors caught up in the grandparent scam may be reluctant to discuss their situation, even if a teller tries to intervene. They're told by scammers to say nothing.

Moreover, there's only so much a teller can do to halt a potential act of fraud. The teller who handled Macaione's wire transfer did speak up. But as Macaione tells it, all he did was ask generally about the nature of the transaction. And then he wired the cash.

How could that have gone differently? Well, what if the teller had discreetly raised the possibility of the grandparent scam?

What if the teller had suggested that if Macaione had received such a call, he might want to phone his relative before transferring funds? What if he said the bank would be happy to provide a private office from which such a call could be made then and there?

These few simple steps would have saved Macaione $27,000.

Stokes at AARP observed that scammers "know how to push our buttons" and prod victims into making emotional, rather than logical, decisions. She advised seniors not to answer the phone if they don't recognize the number.

"Listen to the message," she said. "Take a beat. Think about it."

Stokes also encouraged all businesses with consumer-facing employees - bank tellers, cashiers - to put policies in place aimed at being proactive in safeguarding customers.

Such measures shouldn't be necessary, just as we shouldn't have to demand that social media platforms not spread lies, or that telecom companies do more to stop robocalls.

But that's the world we live in. Businesses need to step up.

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ABOUT THE WRITER

David Lazarus, a Los Angeles Times columnist, writes on consumer issues. He can be reached at david.lazarus@latimes.com.

Visit Los Angeles Times at www.latimes.com

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