Virginia Veteran Scammed Out of Millions of Dollars, and the Banks Did Nothing to Stop It

Larry W. Cook

Pictured: Larry W. Cook

Q. I heard about a veteran who was scammed out of millions of dollars in Virginia before he passed away. The banks allowed dozens of huge wire transfers to go through to banks in Thailand without question. The man was very careful with his money and would’ve never allowed it had he been in his right mind. With the uptick in scams affecting seniors, who’s to say that this isn’t happening to lots of other people. What is being done to put a halt to financial fraud against seniors?

A. You are correct about this unfortunate situation. I will explain some of the details so you and other readers can see how these scams can occur.

Scam artists tricked Larry Cook, a US Navy veteran who resided in Fairfax County, into transferring more than $3.6 million to a Bangkok bank. His niece Janine Satterfield said that Wells Fargo and Navy Federal Credit Union allowed her uncle to initiate wire transfers totaling over $3.6 million, with the majority sent to Thailand. She discovered photographs of the international wire transfers he had made after searching for his Social Security number for funeral arrangements when he died in 2021 at the age of 76.

Cook had an estate worth nearly $10 million and had started managing his late mother’s nearly $2 million estate. In July 2019, he suffered a stroke that disabled him and left him cognitively impaired. The scam spanned from October 2020 to March 2021, and he passed away just a month later. It turns out he made 75 international transfers, mostly in the amount of $49,500, using the services of both banks. Despite Cook being reported to adult protective services by his credit union in mid-December, an additional 42 international wires were still allowed to be processed. Satterfield alleges that both Wells Fargo and Navy Federal Credit acted in bad faith by neglecting to investigate these suspicious transactions.

How the Scam Ensnared Larry Cook

The scam began with a phishing email. On October 5, 2020, Cook received an email purportedly from Amazon, informing him that his iPad and PlayStation were being shipped. The email included a contact number for “Order Help-Desk” if he had any inquiries.

Despite the sender’s email address not appearing to be associated with Amazon, Cook contacted them and received a cancellation form, which provided vague instructions for a refund involving his bank.

The following day, Cook wired $49,500 to an individual in Singapore through his Wells Fargo account. Wire records indicate that he sent money to various individuals at different addresses, all under the guise of “loan repayment.”

Cook attempted to wire money through Wells Fargo again in November 2020 but was denied without a reason provided. Undeterred, he proceeded to transfer the funds from his Wells Fargo account to his credit union account.

Larry Cook died in 2021 at age 76, just one month after the scam. His niece is now fighting to try to make sure banks put suitable protections in place for customers such as this.

Niece Sues Wells Fargo and Navy Federal Credit Union

In a lawsuit filed earlier this year in the US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia on behalf of Larry Cook’s estate, Janine Satterfield sued Wells Fargo and Navy Federal Credit Union for negligence and other claims.

Satterfield, who is serving as the administrator of her uncle’s estate, explained how her uncle was a “decorated Navy commander and nuclear submarine officer who was known in the family as a meticulous record keeper.” In the complaint, she said that began to change after he suffered the stroke in 2019 that left him cognitively impaired.

Janine believes her late uncle’s banks should have done more to prevent him from sending millions overseas. “Not one wire should have gone out. There were red flags,” Satterfield said.

According to Satterfield’s complaint, after 28 wires had been sent through Navy Federal, a representative for the company reported Cook to Fairfax County Adult Protective Services, writing, “Wires were conducted in a manner indicative of possible elder financial exploitation.” APS conducted an investigation and communicated to his bank that there was “a risk for financial exploitation and asked that his accounts continued to be monitored.” According to Satterfield’s complaint, even after alerting APS, Navy Federal “continued to process at least another 42 wires” for Cook. “We’ve argued that once somebody knew something was wrong, it should have stopped,” said Kimberley Murphy, the attorney representing Satterfield. In the filing, Murphy wrote the credit union “had every ability to shut down the account” or ask a judge to appoint a conservator.

Navy Federal filed a motion to dismiss, indicating that it warned Cook “numerous times that he is the victim of a scam, but he still wanted to proceed with the wires.” It also pointed to the APS report, which stated, “Mr. Cook refused to meet with APS” and “became angry that anyone had suggested that he was being victimized.” The same APS report noted the agency “was not able to obtain any information about Mr. Cook’s support network and as a result, did not speak to anyone within his social circle who may have been able to privately address the concern.” The APS reports states they closed out their investigation Feb. 1, 2021, and documented: “Needs Protective Services – Refused.” Records show APS referred the case to the FBI “due to the amount of money transferred to international accounts.” Satterfield had argued that the credit union “undertook the duty” to protect Cook after making a voluntary report to APS, but there is no law in Virginia that recognizes that.

Due to the attempts made by APS and Cook’s refusal to accept their services, the case was dismissed in May 2023. There’s no word yet on what the family plans to do next. Satterfield said she’s heartbroken her uncle’s proud legacy has been tarnished by this tragedy and hopes that by sharing his story, others might avoid the same pain.

Don’t Let Financial Fraud Happen to You or a Loved One

According to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center, more than 88,000 people over age 60 lost a cumulative $3.1 billion to scams last year. That’s an 84 percent increase in losses from 2021. The most common type of scams were tech support, nonpayment or nondelivery scams, as well as personal data breach and romance schemes. The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, a division of the US Treasury Department, says that financial exploitation is the most common form of elder abuse but remains widely unreported.

In 2022, Virginia strengthened reporting laws, more than a year after Cook’s death. The new rules allow financial institution staff to delay or refuse to disburse and execute transfers if they suspect exploitation.

Genevieve Waterman with the National Council on Aging said senior citizens too often are in denial they’re being scammed. She continued that while banks can now notify authorities, they aren’t always required to do so. In Virginia, for example, financial institutions are not mandatory reporters. Waterman also said that their hands are typically tied when it comes to contacting family unless they’re listed on their account.

“If an older adult has maybe a power of attorney, there is a way is to stop the transaction by having to get the power of attorney to sign as well,” she said. “It really just depends on their situation and whether or not they have someone on file that the bank can reach out to.”

Virginia Lawmaker Calls for Tougher Elder Exploitation Reporting Laws

Virginia Del. Michelle Maldonado, a Democrat who represents Prince William County, said she’d like to see changes to the law to require financial institutions to report concerns of possible elder financial exploitation, akin to federal law requiring them to report suspicions of crimes like money laundering. “There should be a duty to report if we suspect there is elder financial fraud occurring. How do we create those policies and procedures to make sure that the banks are safe and protected and the people they serve are safe and protected?”

How Can You Protect a Loved One from Financial Exploitation?

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has advice and tips on how people can prepare should they experience a decline in their capacity to manage their money:

  • Organize important documents. Organize the following and store in a safe and accessible location:
    • information for bank and brokerage statements
    • mortgage and credit information
    • insurance policies
    • pension or benefit summaries
    • Social Security payment information, and
    • contacts for doctors and lawyers
  • Designate a trusted contact person. Add a trusted contact person to your brokerage account in case your broker has trouble contacting you or believes you are being scammed. The trusted contact person doesn’t necessarily need to have access to the account holder’s money.
  • Social Security Advance Designation. The Social Security Advance Designation allows people to designate up to three people to serve as a “representative payee” should there be a need.
  • Set up auto bill pay. You might set up automatic bill pay and direct deposit for checks to reduce the chance of misuse of the elder’s checking or savings account.
  • Review financial statements monthly and regularly check credit reports for signs of fraud.
  • Stay in touch with senior loved ones. Because it’s more difficult to commit fraud with an audience, don’t isolate elders. Make sure they keep in touch with relatives and friends. You can check in with the vulnerable adult’s close friends and neighbors if you live far away.
  • Isolation increases the risk of elder financial exploitation, so having a network of family and friends can be an excellent way to prevent abuse. Keep your eyes open and trust your instincts. You could stop an older adult’s abuse and prevent the abuser from harming others.
  • Ask for help. Involve a trusted friend, relative, or professional in talks about your finances.
  • Keep things updated. Be sure to keep accounts current and notify trusted contacts of any changes.
  • Create a financial power of attorney. Take steps to plan for diminished capacity. Talk about how elders want to manage their money and property if they become unable to do it themselves, such as creating a power of attorney and a trust. A properly-drafted Financial Power of Attorney is the most important legal document that a person can have and is an essential part of every Incapacity Plan and Estate Plan. It authorizes an agent, sometimes called “Attorney-in-Fact,” to act on your behalf and sign your name to financial and/or legal documents.

Keeping an eye out for red flags of elder abuse can help protect the ones you love. For more details on how to do so, please read today’s Critter Corner, which focuses on how you can tell if your loved one is a victim of financial exploitation.

How to Report Suspected Financial Exploitation

If you have a loved one that you suspect is a victim of financial exploitation, it is critical to act quickly. There are a number of steps that you can take:

  • Contact the bank or financial professional who manages the elderly person’s accounts. The bank or financial professional can freeze accounts or take other action. If family members had been more involved in the case described in the article, it might have helped Mr. Cook.
  • Contact Adult Protective Services in your jurisdiction. Adult Protective Services agencies are created to protect elderly and vulnerable adults. You can find an office near you here.
  • Contact your local police department if you believe that the elderly person has been a victim of fraud.
  • Finally, if the senior loved one has another trusted contact such as an attorney or accountant, he or she may be able to help.

Planning to Protect Loved Ones

Protecting seniors from scams is very important, which is why we continually share information about current scams and how you can protect yourself. It is also very important to plan for your future and to help plan for the future of your loved ones. If you or your loved ones have not done Incapacity Planning, Estate Planning, or Long-Term Care Planning, or if you have a loved one who is nearing the need for long-term care or already receiving long-term care, please contact us to make an appointment:

Northern Virginia Elder Law: 703-691-1888
Fredericksburg Elder Law: 540-479-1435
Rockville Elder Law: 301-519-8041
Annapolis Elder Law: 410-216-0703

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About Evan H Farr, CELA, CAP

Evan H. Farr is a 4-time Best-Selling author in the field of Elder Law and Estate Planning. In addition to being one of approximately 500 Certified Elder Law Attorneys in the Country, Evan is one of approximately 100 members of the Council of Advanced Practitioners of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and is a Charter Member of the Academy of Special Needs Planners.

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