Enlisting bank tellers to nail scammers preying on your grandma

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At a Tuesday press conference held by the state Commerce Department, reporters heard the disturbing story of an 83-year-old Minnesota woman who had to file for bankruptcy after she'd been targeted by scammers.

The Star Tribune reported that Peggy Hiestand-­Harri’s, the woman's daughter, said the con artists coached her mother to take cash advances from two credit cards and send $47,000 to a Jamaican scam. The elderly woman visited local banks and credit unions at least 17 times over 10 days to withdraw money. In one visit she took out $10,000.

Tellers working on the front lines can often spot such scams, Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman said. The Pioneer Press reported that new rules now encourage financial-services workers, including tellers and cashiers, to flag and question such suspicious transactions.

"When a senior comes in and tries to get a $10,000 advance on a credit card, or tries to wire money to a foreign country," it's now permitted for a teller to report it and for bank officials to check with family members, said Will Phillips, AARP's Minnesota state director. "They should know they have the authority."

While federal banking laws make it illegal to disclose financial transactions to third parties, the law contains exemptions regarding senior fraud. Minnesota officials offered the reminder that state banks and credit unions are encouraged, not forbidden, to identify, question and report transactions if they suspect a senior is being swindled. State law also grants them immunity from liability for reporting such financial crimes.

WCCO reports Minnesota is first in the nation to provide guidance to banks and credit unions for spotting and reporting fraud without penalties.

Senior citizens have always been a target for scammers, but financial fraud is on the rise as the number of seniors increases. Former Minnesota attorney general Hubert Humphrey III, who heads the Office of Older Americans at the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, noted that the national epidemic robs seniors of an estimated $2.5 billion a year.

Suspicious signs include uncharacteristic attempts to wire money, a sudden change in who manages an older person’s money, frequent large withdrawals and the closing of certificates of deposit or accounts without regard to penalties.

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