A few months before he died last November, Robert Matava of Unionville, a decorated World War II veteran, spoke publicly about his battle with a stealthy domestic enemy: financial exploitation of the elderly.
After his wife died, Matava had moved to Florida, entrusting his son with his estate, including the house he built and the auto repair business he started. When he returned to Unionville in 2010 to spend his remaining years at home, he said, his son “refused to let me in” and he found himself penniless.
“In all my 90 years, I couldn’t predict the abuse I’d suffer” at the hands of a family member, he had testified at a hearing convened by U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, who is pushing legislation to strengthen detection and prosecution of elder abuse.
A new government report highlights the need for better collaboration among federal agencies, banks and state authorities to combat the kind of exploitation that Matava said he suffered. The report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) cites estimates that seniors lose at least $2.9 billion a year to financial abuse and exploitation, and that less than a third of cases are reported to authorities.
The report exposes gaps in the nation’s strategy for preventing and prosecuting elder financial exploitation, including problems in sustaining collaborations between agencies, obtaining data on abuse, and developing expertise in financial exploitation.
Among the problems cited is the reluctance of many banks to disclose financial information that could help to identify perpetrators or stop further exploitation, on the grounds that such disclosures would violate federal privacy laws or bank policies. Adult protective services officials in the four states reviewed by the GAO – California, New York, Pennsylvania and Illinois – reported that they often are denied access to bank records, despite exceptions permitting disclosure to protect against fraud or to comply with civil or criminal investigations.
Also, while the federal government generally requires banks to train employees on a variety of issues, such as money laundering and information security, GAO investigators said they could find no similar requirements for banks to train employees to recognize and report elder financial exploitation.
The GAO report recommends that measures be taken “to encourage banks to identify and report suspected elder financial exploitation and to facilitate release of bank records to APS (adult protective services) and law enforcement authorities for investigating this activity.” Specifically, the report calls on the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to develop a plan to educate banks nationwide on how to identify and report possible financial exploitation.
“Without information to correct banks’ misconceptions about the impact of federal privacy laws on their ability to release bank records, APS and law enforcement agencies will continue to find it difficult to obtain the information they need from banks to investigate suspected cases of elder financial exploitation,” the report says.
The report also notes that older adults consult with a variety of financial planners and professionals, often without a clear understanding of their expertise. While certain professionals, such as physicians, nurses and patient advocates, are required to report suspicions of elder abuse in Connecticut, financial advisors are not.
The GAO recommended a number of steps that should be taken by federal agencies, including disseminating educational materials that could be used by state and local agencies to combat exploitation; collecting and disseminating better data to inform state and local decisions regarding elder financial exploitation; and developing expertise among prosecutors and other criminal justice officials. The report suggests that the Elder Justice Coordinating Council, a new federal group charged with coordinating elder justice activities, could be the vehicle for developing a strong national strategy.
Earlier this year, Blumenthal and Senate colleagues proposed the Elder Protection and Abuse Prevention Act, a bill to implement a comprehensive network of elder abuse prevention and response measures. The bill would toughen federal standards for elder abuse, neglect and exploitation, and require states to incorporate elder abuse screening into health and wellness services.
In September, Blumenthal introduced another bill, named in honor of Matava, that would enhance penalties for telemarketing and email-marketing fraud directed at seniors, improve data collection on instances of elder abuse reported to law enforcement, and direct federal agencies to help states investigate scams and exploitation.
In Connecticut, the state Department of Social Services has primary responsibility for investigating and dealing with issues of elder abuse and exploitation.