Interview with Antonio P. Salazar, Commissioner of Financial Regulation

1. Why is protecting older Americans from financial exploitation important to you and your organization?

As the Commissioner of Financial Regulation for the State of Maryland, I am committed to ensuring that Maryland citizens can conduct their financial transactions with banks, credit unions, and other financial service providers safely and securely, without having to worry about becoming a victim to fraud or illegal business practices.

Financial exploitation can take many forms, including predatory loans, unscrupulous credit repair businesses, and fraudulent debt collection. With advances in technology, financial products have evolved and financial crimes are now more sophisticated. Email phishing scams can trick unsuspecting individuals into supplying criminals with their financial account username and passwords. There are confidence scams involving wiring money to foreign countries and paying scammers with gift cards. Senior citizens are also being coaxed into unnecessarily borrowing from their 401(k) or pensions.

Maryland’s older adults are a significant and vital part of our state’s culture and economy. I believe that my office has a responsibility to help to protect their financial health and well-being.

2. What is your office doing to support the mission of PROTECT Week?

The Office of the Commissioner of Financial Regulation is Maryland’s financial services regulatory agency. We work every day to ensure that businesses such as mortgage companies, collection agencies, sales finance companies, personal loan businesses, and debt management and credit repair services comply with state and federal consumer protection laws, including laws meant to protect against fraud and abuse.

Year-round we maintain a variety of consumer resources and publications on our website and encourage Marylanders of any age to submit a consumer complaint if they experience a problem with any of the businesses we supervise. Our office also collaborates with Project SAFE (“Stop Adult Financial Exploitation”) partners to make sure Maryland’s banks and financial service providers are aware of their responsibilities if they suspect adult financial abuse.

This year the mission of PROTECT Week is even more critical as many of Maryland’s older adults are faced with the myriad of challenges brought on by the spread of the coronavirus and COVID-19. However, our message remains the same: education and understanding are the first steps for protecting seniors from financial exploitation. With public safety in mind, this year we have joined the other PROTECT Week partners to reduce in-person events and are focused on spreading awareness online and through public service announcements. I encourage everyone to explore the PROTECT Week website to learn more about what financial exploitation is and how to prevent it from happening to yourself or someone you love.

3. Do you have any first or secondhand experience with financial exploitation that motivates you to participate in PROTECT Week?

 When I was younger, my parents and in-laws had a policy of never speaking to, or purchasing items from, unknown callers; and they never provided unsolicited personal information over the phone. My family passed down this important lesson which I appreciate even more now that I’m older. Thankfully, they never got caught up in a financial scam.

Some of my close friends have described the pain endured by their parents and other relatives who have been victimized by promotional scams. I witnessed the devastation of those scams first-hand when I worked for a bank. Those who were targeted by the scammers were retired, and the losses they suffered reached the tens of thousands of dollars. The emotional and financial impact of the scam was not only felt by those who were victimized, but their families who had to step in to support their parents and relatives. As a public official and head of a consumer protection agency, I see it as my duty to ensure that our Office continuously works to protect our State’s senior citizens so that they can live without fear.

4. Do you have tips you want to share to help older Americans protect themselves from financial abuse?

There are several “do’s” and “don’ts” for protecting yourself from financial abuse. Here are some tips to keep in mind when doing business with financial service providers and maintain your personal financial health:

  • DO make sure you understand any loan agreement, debt management agreement, or financial document before you sign. It’s always okay to ask questions!
  • DON’T feel pressured to make impulsive financial decisions. Some financial products are complicated. Take the time you need to learn more and think through the long-term implications.
  • DON’T give in to fear tactics or “promotions” to wire money in exchange for a gift card or a promise of additional money in the future. This is a common scam to scare or lure victims into giving up hundreds or thousands of dollars. Remember that perpetrators can be very convincing.
  • DON’T pay a fee upfront for a loan modification or other loss mitigation service, sometimes referred to as “loan audit” or “loan relief assistance”. In most situations, it is illegal in Maryland to charge fees prior to these services being performed.
  • DO monitor your financial accounts and credit report regularly for transactions or activity you don’t recognize. Most banks or credit unions allow their customers to check their accounts online through their website or a smart phone app. The website allows consumers to view credit reports from the three major bureaus for free.
  • DO review the information on our office’s website. Two brochures may be of particular interest on this topic: What Account is Right for You? Account Ownership and Survivorship and Reverse Mortgages: What You Need to Know as a Maryland Homeowner.

We set aside one day a year to draw attention to this matter, but financial exploitation is an ongoing problem that continues to evolve; it needs our constant vigilance. Let’s make every day a day to be aware of and fight against elder abuse. Together, we can protect Maryland’s older consumers and help them safeguard their hard-earned finances.

To report suspected cases of financial exploitation, contact Maryland Department of Human Services at 1-800-332-6347 to reach your local Adult Protective Services office.

You may also contact the Office of the Commissioner of Financial Regulation at 1- 888-784-0136 to report fraud and illegal or deceptive business practices related to a loan product, debt collection activity, debt relief or credit repair service, or any of the industries under the supervision of our office.