2019 Influencer in Aging Ronald Long, the St. Louis-based director of Wells Fargo’s Elder Clients Initiatives team since 2014, created what’s become a key brokerage industry tool to protect older investors from elder financial elder abuse. Long and his team originated the “In Case of Emergency” form so advisers could contact someone if they thought their client had cognitive difficulties or might be a victim of elder abuse. Now, the brokerage industry’s self-regulator, FINRA, is using a version called the Trusted Contact form.
The need is urgent: Annual losses from elder financial abuse in the U.S. are estimated to exceed $36 billion. In April 2019, Long — a former Securities and Exchange Commission district administrator— broadened his scope to assist elder customers of all Wells Fargo’s divisions, heading up the company’s new Elder Client Initiatives Center of Excellence.
Next Avenue: When did you first get interested in elder fraud and elder abuse?
Ronald Long: In 2005 and 2006, I was hearing anecdotal concerns of financial advisers. The biggest concern from the advisers was what to do with a client who has diminished capacity.
How did your Elder Clients Initiatives team start and what does it do?
This team came about mainly from the numbers. In August 2010, we told advisers to count the number of [elder fraud] concerns coming in per month and it averaged about thirty. By 2014, we started consistently crossing a hundred concerns a month. At that point, we thought it would make sense to have a centralized place for these concerns.
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And we thought: ‘Can we do more to promote training and guidance? And could we change the regulatory and legislative landscape as well?’
Was Wells Fargo the first financial institution to do this?
I think we were first or one of the first for sure.
How big a problem is elder financial abuse today and why?
The problem is enormous. Ten thousand boomers are turning sixty-five each day and some are about to turn seventy-five next year. So, dementia and diminished capacity is increasing as a natural outgrowth of aging. And some of these people are folks with money and internet access, which gives an instant doorway to the bad guys.
Is elder financial abuse growing?
My sense is it is growing. There’s also growing awareness, with more effort trying to get elder financial abuse reported and to put in mechanisms to slow it down or stop it.
You came up with something in 2015 that turned into FINRA’s Trusted Contact form. Tell me about that.
We called our form the “In Case of Emergency” form. One challenge is there are two things we have to do: maintain privacy if a person has an account at Wells Fargo and, by law, we have to properly and faithfully exercise our clients’ orders. So, if a client says his friend, a Nigerian prince, says ‘Send fifty thousand dollars,’ our obligation is to do it.
We felt if we had a trusted name from the client on file, that solved the first hurdle. We could call the client’s son or daughter to help with the second part: delay the transaction until he or she was able to talk to mom or dad and convince the parent that the prince will never send the parent any money.
Everybody is asked at an account opening: Would you like to name a person in case of emergency? And we try to repeat that every three years.
We also encourage getting a name for our existing clients. Advisers talk about it at their quarterly annual meetings with clients: Have you thought about doing this?
We shared the idea with industry groups, talked to our state regulators and visited Adult Protective Services agencies. Then we talked to FINRA. They were very receptive. So FINRA, in one fell swoop, took both ideas — their Trusted Contact form was a good feature, coupled with a new ability to hold transactions when elder abuse or diminished capacity was suspected.
What has the effect been?
We have folks who say, ‘Thanks for contacting me. I had no idea.’ One son said, ‘I think my mom wouldn’t be alive but for your contacting us.’
What more do you plan to do to combat elder financial fraud?
We will do more internal training. We’ve now formed an Elder Client Initiatives Center of Excellence across the company. It will be an entrepreneurial elder abuse prevention program.
And we’d like to reach the general public to get awareness out there. I think having families talk about elder financial abuse is going to be the central vaccine to fighting it.
Some people might say: How can Next Avenue honor someone at Wells Fargo after the company agreed to pay over half a million dollars to customers affected by its improper sales practices?
The black eye does exist. What we’re doing consistently in the elder space is building trust with our customers. We’ve been consistent and dedicated to protecting our clients from losing their hard-earned funds to scam artists.