THE $23,095.58 wire transfer from Jack Whittaker's savings account at the Antioch Schools Federal Credit Union was the first sign something was fishy.

A day after the money had left his account, the 82-year-old widower went in to the credit union to make a withdrawal. He was shocked to learn that his account was nearly empty. The money he thought was there had gone to purchase an annuity he knew nothing about.

After that, credit union CEO Rob Greaff and his staff started keeping a close eye on the World War II veteran's account.

Whittaker had opened it back in the 1950s. The balance hadn't been touched in at least five years. Suddenly, in April 2005, Whittaker began coming in to the branch and withdrawing hundreds of dollars at a time. A younger man was always with him, near the counter or outside in a black truck. He claimed he was Whittaker's caretaker, but Greaff didn't believe him.

On Dec. 14, 2005, Whittaker came in to the credit union to withdraw $500. The teller, aware of the red flags on the account, asked Whittaker what he wanted it for. "I don't know," he said. "I just have to give somebody $500."

Greaff went to the authorities with suspicions Whittaker was being taken advantage of financially.

According to Lynn Uilkema, Contra Costa deputy district attorney, the credit union's vigilance foiled an ex-felon's elaborate scheme to steal everything that Whittaker owned.

Thanks to alert employees, Uilkema was able to put Joe Gonzales where he belongs — in prison, serving a 10-year sentence for elder theft.

Gonzales had "befriended" Whittaker at Pinky's Car Wash in Antioch. Gonzales was washing cars. The senior, who lived alone and had no family nearby, was a regular customer.

In a little more than a year, Gonzales had drained four of Whittaker's bank accounts and run through more than $100,000 of the senior's savings.

There was $50,000 for a down payment on a half-million-dollar house; more than $20,000 to buy new furniture; thousands more to pay off his truck and fix up his wife's Cadillac; $20,000 for a 14-day Hawaiian cruise.

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Gonzales had persuaded Whittaker to set up a trust naming him sole beneficiary. He stood to inherit the elderly man's $400,000 home and more than $200,000 in annuities that he'd gotten him to buy from a shady associate.

It's because of shameless predators like Gonzales that the state Legislature passed the Financial Elder Abuse Reporting Act, which went into effect in January.

It requires all employees of financial institutions — banks, credit unions and savings and loans — to contact the police department or Adult Protective Services if they suspect that an elderly person is a victim of financial abuse. Those who fail to do so face fines of up to $5,000.

Financial institution employees now join other so-called mandated reporters who often come into contact with elderly people and are in a position to detect hidden abuse.

They include health care workers, state and county employees, nursing home staff, clergy, and law enforcement.

The banking industry fought against this law to protect our seniors. Bankers argued that it wasn't their job to be policemen. They said it would compromise customer confidentiality, and that it would offend elderly customers.

Their powerful lobbyists in Sacramento killed similar bills in the past. Thankfully, this time, lawmakers refused to buckle.

We applaud Sen. Joe Simitian,

D-Palo Alto, and Assemblywoman Lois Wolk, D-Davis, for shepherding this common-sense law through their respective chambers.

SIGNS SOMEONE IS STEALING FROM A VULNERABLE SENIOR:
  • A drastic change in banking activity, especially sudden and frequent withdrawals
  • Withdrawals from a bank account that had not been used in years
  • Signatures on checks that do not resemble the elder s
  • Frequent checks written to cash
  • Unexplained wire transfers and other payments for large sums for foreign lotteries and telemarketing promotions
MORE SIGNS OF ELDER FINANCIAL ABUSE:
  • Elder lacks amenities that he should be able to afford
  • Valuable personal property is missing
  • Senior voluntarily gives compensation for needed care or companionship
  • Long lost relatives suddenly concerned about an elder with assets
  • Senior signs power of attorneys, property transfers, and conducts other financial transacations that he cannot comprehend
  • Change of beneficiary on a senior s bank or life insurance policies
  • Senior buys inappropriate trusts and annuities
  • Source: The Elder Law Clinic
IF YOU SUSPECT THAT YOU OR SOMEONE YOU KNOW IS THE VICTIM OF ELDER ABUSE:
  • Call the Elder Law Clinic : 925-969-3341
  • Adult Protective Services 1-877 -4347
IMPORTANT ELDER ABUSE PREVENTION RESOURCES
  • Adult Protective Services: 1-877-839-4347
  • State Attorney General s Office: 1-800-952-5225
  • Elder Financial Protection Network: 415-897-9555
  • Long Term Care Ombudsman 925-646-2070
  • Public Guardian s Office 925-646-2901
  • Legal Assistance for Seniors 510-832-3040
  • National Do Not Call Registry 1-888-382-1222
SIGNS THAT AN INDIVIDUAL IS USING UNDUE INFLUENCE TO COMMIT ELDER FINANCIAL ABUSE:
  • He repeatedly pressures an elder for money
  • Tells senior that if he doesn t give it to him, he will end up in a nursing home
  • Uses elder s money to buy cars, houses and other costly items
  • Pressures senior for a power of attorney, to add his name to property deeds or bank accounts
  • Doesn t allow a senior to speak for himself
  • Isolates elder from relatives and friends
SPOTTING ELDER FINANCIAL ABUSE:
  • Signs of trouble: Caretaker isolates the senior from family and friends, asks clearly inappropriate questions about a senior s will and assets, suddenly has new cars and other expensive possessions.
  • Steps to help prevent abuse Always check background and references, give caretaker specific responsibilities, not an unreasonable list of chores;. monitor senior s bank accounts and investments closely; Don t allow care-taker to write checks on elder s account; ask for written receipts
  • If you suspect abuse: Contact your local police department or county Adult Protective Services.

When it comes to elder financial abuse, financial institutions are often the scene of the crime. Brazen elder predators have been known to march seniors up to the teller window in their pajamas.

Our financial institutions are an important early warning system for detecting elder abuse. Their employees can spot unusual activity on an elderly customer's account, such as a $150,000 wire transfer going to a foreign lottery, or a $135,000 check written to an accountant for a bogus tax bill.

Suppose a 92-year-old woman comes into a bank with her daughter. She wants to close her account. She asks for $139,000 in cash. It's clear she has no idea what planet she's on. Shouldn't the teller have a legal responsibility to do something to help protect her?

California law makes it easy for financial institution employees to do the right thing. They don't even have to worry about getting in trouble if they make an honest mistake. They can't be prosecuted unless they knowingly make a false claim.

No one's asking tellers to play detective, only to report in a timely manner by telephone or in writing possible crimes occurring before their very eyes.

Legally, the Antioch Schools Federal Credit Union didn't have to do anything. The mandatory reporting law hadn't gone into effect yet. Employees could have looked the other way.

Bank of America didn't alert anyone while Gonzales was raiding Whittaker's account there. Neither did Citibank. Nor Wells Fargo.

After police began investigating, employees at two of those banks said they remembered Whittaker and Gonzales. Whittaker couldn't conduct any transactions without Gonzales telling him what to do. There was clearly something wrong, but bank employees never went to the authorities.

In the end, Gonzales was tripped up by his own greed. He thought the money for the annuity was going to be transferred from one of Whittaker's other accounts.

Gonzales drove Whittaker to the credit union, thinking the money was still there.

That's when Greaff got involved. He contacted Allianz Insurance Company of North America and got the wire transfer reversed. Then, he set up an eight-month surveillance on Whittaker's account.

Since January, law enforcement agencies throughout the state have been deluged with invaluable tips from financial institutions. We believe state lawmakers should look at expanding the list of mandatory reporters.

Why not, for example, add title officers who routinely witness elder financial abuse in real estate transactions, but don't come forward because of confidentiality concerns?

It's a shame that we even need a law to compel people to do what is so clearly the moral thing to do.

Tammerlin Drummond is an editorial writer for the Bay Area News Group-East Bay. Her e-mail is tdrummond@bayareanewsgroup.com.