Wells Fargo Advisors and Morgan Stanley were held up at a Finra conference Tuesday as examples of firms with best practices when it comes to dealing with combating the exploitation of senor investors.
Speaking at the 2019 Finra Senior Investor Protection Conference in Washington, D.C., Mary Shea Tucker, manager for elder client initiatives at Wells Fargo Advisors, said the wirehouse has had a dedicated team dealing with these issues for the past five years.
From a team of just five three years ago, the group has since tripled in size to 15, she said.
“And when I say dedicated, I mean that in both senses of the word — these are not people who are [protecting against] elder abuse as part of their job; it is their entire job,” Tucker said.
“We respond to inquiries from the field and from other people, too — from external sources, from people in other parts of Wells Fargo Advisors, from other firms, and then we do the little mini investigations. They’re not full scale, external fraud investigations, but mini investigations,” she added.
Tucker’s team also reports senior financial exploitation cases to state agencies such as Adult Protective Services and state securities commissions.
“The most important thing we do is to talk to the people who face the clients,” Tucker said, referring to the wirehouse’s advisors. “We are very fortunate to have this large staff of people who can respond — not large enough, but we’re growing. It’s very time consuming. It’s kind of risk management at the front line; it’s unfolding.”
Tucker added: “It’s very emotional and … anybody who does this work understands that even if you’re just talking with the financial advisor and not the client, the level of confusion and concern and fear about complaints about the client being scammed … there is just an awful lot of coaching and hand-holding and education that goes into it.”
Tucker said that as a matter of policy, Wells Fargo Advisors reports senior financial exploitation incidents in all 50 states “as if we’re mandatory reporters in every state, although that is not the case for most broker-dealers.”
“We’re maximizing our reporting responsibility. We’re kind of quarterbacking with people all over the firm,” Tucker said. “It’s really like traffic-copping.”
While Tucker’s team decides which incidents must be reported, the group leaves the business-related decisions to the advisory team and other relevant individuals in the wirehouse.
“All other decisions — and we have to constantly remind them — these are business risk decisions," Tucker said.
She said her team doesn’t make “the decision about whether to exit a client relationship, to place a restriction on an account … to take a power of attorney or to reject the power of attorney.”
Tucker acknowledged, though, that “because we have so much experience in the years and years of experience in this area,” her team is a “key player in the [business] decision.”
Thomas Mierswa, executive director at Morgan Stanley’s legal and compliance division, agreed with Tucker’s traffic cop analogy.
Mierswa said an ideal compliance infrastructure for senior investor protection is like a “three-legged stool,” with each leg representing training, a solid and consistent escalation process, and a monitoring program.
The training must be for the individuals who deal with clients directly and for their supervisors, Mierswa said.
Training should include detection — “what do you do to detect both cognitive dissonance or mental capacity of a client, as well as financial exploitation”; internal reporting — “the escalation process that a firm decides to address in order to effectuate supervisory obligations”; and external reporting — “where life usually gets complicated very quickly.”
The complication in external reporting lies with the varying obligations of broker-dealer firms from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, according to Mierswa.
Mierswa noted that depending on the state where a client resides, a broker-dealer firm may have reporting obligations both for the detection of general abuse and financial abuse. He said the firm may also have separate reporting obligations for remediation steps being undertaken, such as when the firm puts a hold on disbursements to senior clients while a swift investigation is being conducted.