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Mercer Island banks keep eye out for scams targeting seniors

Mercer Island bank tellers are looking out for their senior clientele. In an arena where financial scams abound, Island tellers are careful to identify the warning signs, especially when it comes to their elder customers.

Just last month, a Key Bank employee was able to identify and stop a bank transfer scam from going through.

According to Mercer Island geriatric specialist Betsy Zuber, who was informed of the incident, an Island senior was almost conned into a fraudulent money transfer to an unknown person in Canada. The teller immediately picked up on the suspicious transaction, politely explained her doubts to the senior and contacted the Mercer Island police. In the end, the Key Bank employee was able to prevent the scam from occurring.

Zuber expressed admiration for the teller’s prudent response.

“I was just very impressed. There’s no law that says the bank has to do something about [suspicious transfers]. I’m glad that in this recent scenario, the [teller] refused to give the person the money. They caught the scam, and this takes extra effort,” Zuber said.

According to Key Bank Mercer Island manager Jan Hernandez, this is not the first time that employees have saved a customer from becoming the victim of a financial scam.

“I have found in the last couple of months that we’ve had three or four instances of this type of thing happening,” Hernandez said. “It’s not unusual, but it’s happening more and more often.”

Fortunately, Key Bank employees are adept at noticing the warning sings of fraud and have been able to prevent many scams from occurring. The tellers are encouraged to contact the Mercer Island police if fraud is suspected.

“One of the things we pride ourselves on is the relationship we have with our clients and knowing them and the types of transactions they do,” said Hernandez, who has worked at Key Bank for years. “We take permission and ask questions, especially with our seniors. If it’s something that’s not their usual way of banking, we ask, ‘Why are you doing this? Why are you sending money to Canada when there’s no relations in Canada?’”

This personal approach to customer service has been the strongest antidote against financial scam for Key bankers, Hernandez emphasized.

“Our best defense in these instances is the fact that clients are coming into our branch and we’re being very attentive that these cases are highly unusual,” the branch manager said.

The Reporter questioned other Island banks about their policies to prevent financial scams. Most bank managers declined to share the information due to security precautions.

Bank of America media relations spokeswoman Britney Sheehan said that Bank of America tellers undergo thorough training for the position, which includes how to pick up on suspicious transactions or account activity, particularly that which is directed against seniors.

As part of her job, Zuber is responsible for discussing financial and identity fraud with her Island seniors. What is most painful, Zuber said, is that senior victims are deeply ashamed once they realize that they have been scammed. Often, this shame prevents them from telling others about the con.

“Many are so extremely ashamed that they don’t report it,” she said, adding that the topic of scam comes up with “at least half” of the seniors whom she works with. “This is a very trusting demographic. This age group answers the phone and is polite. I think they believe things that they see. The concept that someone’s trying to take advantage of them is often foreign to them.”

In addition to Zuber, members of the Mercer Island Police Department routinely visit the Island’s senior living communities to discuss the dangers of scam and preventive methods. Resources are also available online.

Attorney General Robert McKenna, in particular, is cracking down on senior-targeted fraud, whether identity theft or financial scams. The attorney general’s Web site has thorough information on how to recognize and prevent various cases of fraud from occurring.

“Consumers lose billions of dollars each year to fraud. People over age 50 are especially vulnerable and account for over half of all victims, according to a study conducted by AARP,” the Web site reads.

And it does happen here. A handful of cases turn up every week on the Mercer Island Reporter’s records page.

For detailed tips on protecting seniors from fraud, visit McKenna’s Web site. Other helpful information can be found on the King County Sheriff’s Web page.

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