News from the Ocean County press office
Calling the nearly 45-minute session “very productive,” Commissioner Joseph H. Vicari highlighted his concerns about the number of recent bank branch closings during a private phone conference with state Banking and Insurance Commissioner Marlene Caride on Friday.
The phone meeting was in response to a September 29, 2021 letter to Caride, in which Vicari outlined his fears that the continued closing of local bank branches is harming the county’s senior citizens and small businesses.
“Senior citizens, especially our oldest adults, often have problems with technology,” Vicari told Caride. “They may have motor skills and cognitive issues that make using a computer and smart phone difficult.”
Vicari was referring to the growing trend in the banking industry where in-person facilities are being replaced by more economical automated online services.
“Community banks should serve the community,” he said. “We need age-friendly bank branches in Ocean County.”
According to state statistics, more than 25 percent of all existing bank branches in Ocean County have closed in recent years. Nearly 50 branches have closed in the past 10 years.
Vicari said that with an aging senior population of more than 200,000 people, local bank branches are more important than ever.
Caride, a former state Assemblywoman, said she is aware of the problem and shares Vicari’s fears about the trend’s impact on both seniors and low-income residents throughout New Jersey.
As a member of the state Assembly, Caride said she sponsored legislation that empowered bank employees to help protect vulnerable customers.
“We are with you, Commissioner Vicari,” she said. “We are out to protect the consumers.”
She asked that the county continue to share information about the impact branch closings are having on local residents.
Caride said her office is informed when a bank decides to close a branch, but has little power to stop a private industry decision.
Vicari was joined in the meeting by Maria LaFace, director of the Ocean County of Senior Services and Steve Scaturro, Director of the Department of Consumer Affairs.
LaFace said bank employees are often the first to spot attempts to defraud seniors.
“Sometimes it even involves a family member trying access an older relative’s account,” she said. “Seniors need this extra layer of protection.”
Scaturro agreed, saying the majority of complaints his office responds to involve fraud against older adults.
“Sometimes even giving a friend or relative an online password can be a problem,” he said.
Vicari suggested that banks might be persuaded to form a local co-op, where various banks could be represented under one roof at one or more central locations.
Besides senior citizens, Vicari said small businesses also depend on local bank branches.
“More than 90 percent of our businesses are small businesses,” Vicari said. “They need a local bank branch if they are to prosper.”
Vicari thanked Caride for her effort and pledged to work with her to address this growing problem.
“We need your help,” he told her. “We appreciate anything you can do to help our residents.”