A woman with a Merrill account claims scammers took $690,000 from her after she visited a California branch of the bank.
A 77-year-old Bank of America client has accused the bank of failing to stop scammers from draining her $690,000 in life savings, which started when she asked to add her son to her Merrill Lynch account, according to an elder financial abuse lawsuit recently filed against the bank and an unidentified branch employee.
Los Angeles-area resident Annie Ma, who was 74 at the time, contends she lost her life savings to a “Chinese authorities scam” in 2021 after going to a branch in West Covina, California, to make the request about her Merrill account, according to the suit, filed last month in California Superior Court and moved to a U.S. District Court this week.
Bank of America “openly shirked their responsibilities to their elderly customers, including the clearly elderly plaintiff,” and assisted a branch employee in conducting the scam by ignoring “multiple red flags” raised by uncharacteristic, large transfers from Ma’s account, the suit contends.
At least one BofA employee, branch customer service representative “Jane Doe,” was involved in the scam, in which two wire transfers of the client’s retirement savings were transferred to scammers, she alleges.
The bank ignored its own policies and procedures to protect Ma from financial elder abuse, instead repeatedly wiring her money to scammers and turning “a blind eye and callous heart to the outrageous pillaging of (her) financial security,” according to the complaint, which cites 10 other unidentified “Doe” defendants.
The suit accuses BofA of financial elder abuse and unlawful, unfair and deceptive business practices, and seeks general, special, punitive and triple damages, among other relief.
“We disagree with the allegations,” BofA spokesman Bill Halldin told ThinkAdvisor on Thursday.
When Ma visited the bank to request her son’s name be added to her Merrill Lynch account, a customer service representative told her the branch didn’t have a Merrill office and asked her to wait for a moment, the complaint says.
Ma “then watched the bank employee turn around, walk to a desk and then bent over the desk and began writing on a piece of paper. The bank employee returned and gave (Ma) the paper with a handwritten phone number on it. The employee told (Ma) to call the number because they would be able to help her,” the complaint states.
When Ma called the number around Jan, 15, 2021, “a man answered the phone, who initially spoke English but then switched to Mandarin, and the person stated they are [with] the ‘Safety Department’ of Bank of America,” the complaint says.
The man asked for Ma’s name and told her she owed $3,600 on a credit card applied for in Shanghai; she responded that BofA should investigate because she lived in Los Angeles and didn’t know anyone in Shanghai, according to the suit.
The man told her to speak with the Shanghai police and connected her to what she was told was the “Shanghai police office,” it says.
A person answering the phone there told Ma the police wanted to jail her because she had $3 million in a Shanghai bank account that had been used for human abductions, according to the case. Ma responded that her money was clean and not associated with criminal activity.
Ma had no money in China or anywhere outside the U.S., her attorney, Monica Hartsock, told ThinkAdvisor by email Thursday.
“The person on the phone from the number she called at the direction of the BofA employee convinced (Ma) that her account was under suspicion for being involved in a major crime. The person stated they needed to check (her) money to see if it is involved in criminal activity or if it’s clean. The person stated that without (Ma’s) cooperation, (she) was facing incarceration in jail,” the suit says.
This frightened Ma, who later that month wired $490,000 — all her life savings at the time — per the instructions given to her so that it could be “checked for criminal activity,” she contends. Ma was then asked to send more to avoid going to jail, so she obtained a $200,000 reverse mortgage and wired those funds as well in April 2021, according to the case.
“BofA should have known that the elderly plaintiff was potentially being scammed, they did nothing to stop the ongoing scam, and ignored the many government advisories they have received informing them to detect, deter and respond to the ‘red flags’ of financial elder abuse,” the lawsuit contends.
“The fact she had $490,000 in her account and was a Chinese-American, 74 years old, is why she was the perfect victim for the employee of BofA who told her to call the specific number,” which sent her into the scam, the lawsuit says.
Ma also alleges that the bank “never contacted the local police department or anyone else to investigate the scam perpetrated against (her) even though they supposedly ‘conducted’ an investigation, “ the suit says, also alleging that BofA didn’t report the employee to police despite being told about the scam and reviewing lobby security video showing her activity when Ma visited the branch.
Despite the situation bearing several elder financial abuse red flags, BofA “did nothing to stop it — nothing — and instead, were a substantial factor in allowing the scam to occur,” the case alleges, also contending that the bank never escalated the suspected abuse or put a hold on the account. The “shockingly” large transactions should have triggered a suspicious activities report and required a currency transaction report, the complaint notes.
The lawsuit contends that BofA knew or should have known about the financial elder abuse under California’s Elder and Dependent Adult Civil Protection Act.