Bill would let banks freeze seniors' accounts if scams are suspected

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State lawmakers in Albany are considering a bill that aims to protect senior citizens from scammers out to swindle their savings.

The bill would allow bank institutions to place a temporary freeze on the accounts of elderly customers if they detect unusual activity -- such as large, frequent cash withdrawals in a short period of time.

Supporters say it would give family members the opportunity to determine if there's a scam afoot. But opponents argue that even a temporary account freeze could have negative consequences, like missed bill payments or other issues.

West Sayville resident Mary van Essendelft thinks the bill is a good idea. Two years ago, her longtime husband died, and two weeks later she underwent cancer surgery. Not long afterward, a scam artist wiped out her life savings, to the tune of $100,000.

It started when she received a phone call from someone claiming to be from the IRS, who said that her son owed back-taxes and was about to be jailed unless she agreed to pay up.

"I was taking cash out of my savings account," van Essendelft recalls. "Every day I'd have to go get $2,000, $3,000, $5,000, depending on what he wanted."

She wishes such a law had been on the books when she was scammed. "He took just about every penny I had," van Essendelft says. "I told him the last time he called, 'I just don't have any more to give you.'"

The bill has been approved by the state Senate the past few years, but not the Assembly. Its fate in the Assembly this year is still undecided.

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