Southwest Wisconsin lawmakers are backing two bills that would enhance safeguards to protect at-risk older adults from financial exploitation.

The proposals would enable financial service providers, brokers and investment advisors to delay or deny transactions or disbursements if the provider suspects exploitation of a vulnerable adult or an adult age 60 or older.

“Right now, they are really good at spotting the fraud, but there is nothing they can do about it,” said state Rep. Travis Tranel, R-Cuba City, who is a cosponsor on both bills.

State Sen. Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green, has also signed onto the bills.

Financial exploitation includes attempts to obtain money or property through deception or coercion, along with crimes such as theft and forgery.

Currently, state statute directs county elder or social service agencies to investigate reports of elder abuse, including financial crimes, but such investigations can take up to 60 days.

Often, the perpetrator lives in a different county, which necessitates collaboration with another agency, said Fred Naatz, director of Grant County Social Services.

“Probably the vast majority of (cases) are somebody that is close to the person, taking advantage of them — getting their name put on a checking or savings account,” he said. “We occasionally get some that are scams.”

In the interim, banks cannot delay transactions, which can lead to irretrievable losses.

Naatz’s department does not track financial exploitation specifically, but most of the crimes it reports to the state concern financial matters or self-neglect. In 2019 — the most recent year for available data — the department filed 70 reports concerning elders.

Current state statute does not permit bank staff to contact family members, attorneys or law enforcement when suspecting a transaction is occurring under exploitive circumstances.

The bill “would give us an opportunity to get involved to approve that transaction,” said Donna Hoppenjan, president and CEO at Mound City Bank in Platteville. “It would pause that transaction. It doesn’t freeze their account.”

The delay or refusal could last for up to five business days unless terminated or extended by a court order.

Naatz said a temporary hold could be useful but might inconvenience older adults who are making informed and intentional decisions concerning their money.

“We can’t create a perfect system,” he said.

The proposal also would impose stiffer sentences to existing securities crimes committed against vulnerable adults.

Both bills garnered bipartisan support and have been referred to legislative committees for review.

“This is the kind of issue that doesn’t just apply to southwest Wisconsin,” Marklein said. “I think it’s a reasonable solution to a problem.”

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