A simple observation by Marci Lobel-Esrig led to a profound insight and a new way of handling a daunting problem for older adults.
She was visiting an elderly aunt who excused herself to drive to a car dealership and drop off a check.
Lobel-Esrig realized that paying bills can be a hassle for older adults. Many of them are not adept at using computers or they have infirmities that make them vulnerable to mistakes and fraud.
“The elderly should be able to age in their homes with dignity and security,” Lobel-Esrig said, “without having to deal with the burdens of paying bills.”
Her insight ultimately led her to create SilverBills LLC, a new kind of bill-paying service.
Having practiced corporate law for 20 years, Lobel-Esrig thinks about liability and she is practiced in problem solving.
She immersed herself in research. She took a business-planning class at the Women’s Enterprise Development Center in White Plains. She networked with elder service providers, such as the Central Westchester Geriatric Committee.
“The reactions I was getting were so positive and exciting,” she said, “that it just propelled me into thinking, I can do this.”
She concluded that older people need a trusted partner.
As eyesight declines or dexterity weakens, for example, they find it difficult to write checks correctly. Many of them have no children, or they live far away from family. Some are managing bills for the first time after a spouse has died. Many are proud; they won’t tell their children that they need help.
Older adults with physical and cognitive limitations are particularly vulnerable to fraud.
The state Office of Children and Family Services recently documented $25 million in losses by elderly victims. That was from just a small sample of 928 adult protection services cases. Many frauds against the elderly are never reported, the agency noted in a June report on financial exploitation of vulnerable adults. Annual losses could be more than $1 billion.
Financial stress can quickly spiral out of control. Checks are not deposited and bills are not paid. Utilities cut off water and electricity services. Banks foreclose on houses and landlords evict tenants. The victims are unable to buy food and medicine and they become fearful or depressed.
The daily money-manager industry already offers bill-paying services, but Lobel-Esrig sees risks. The industry is not licensed or regulated. The managers typically get direct access to client bank accounts to write checks. Paper checks are mailed, leaving clients vulnerable to mail theft.
Last year she quit her position as associate general counsel at Sterling Equities, the real estate firm that also owns the New York Mets. In September she started SilverBills.
She calls her enterprise a fintech (financial technology) social venture startup.
“We create order out of chaos,” she said.
Here’s how it works.
A client gathers her bills. SilverBills takes all that paper and converts the accounts to electronic bills. SilverBills makes the payments electronically.
The information is saved on an encrypted online portal. Before paying a bill, it is checked for “reasonable and customary charges,” in other words, errors and fraud.
One time, for example, a phone bill had doubled in one month. SilverBills set up a conference call with the client and vendor and got the bill corrected.
The firm does not have direct access to the client’s bank account. Payments are deducted electronically from either the client’s bank account or as escrow account.
The client, or her family, can monitor payments on a secure portal.
The company is insured, and if a late fee or penalty is incurred SilverBills will cover the cost.
Clients get a monthly statement showing that the bills have been paid. They are charged a flat rate — instead of the hourly rate that daily money managers typically charge — $100 a month or $75 if they are Medicaid eligible.
“We charge a sliding scale,” she said, because I believe that regardless of one’s income they should be able to have a solution to this problem.”
No more keeping track of due dates. No more writing and mailing paper checks. No more late fees and penalties. No more anxiety, by the client or her children, over financial disruptions.
Clients get the benefit of secure bill paying technology without having to use a computer.
SilverBills has no office yet. Lobel-Esrig works from home in New Rochelle and has two consultants and a tech adviser with whom she collaborates “virtually.”
She recently won a “Pitch for People” competition sponsored by Inspiring Capital, a consulting firm that places business school fellows with social enterprise ventures. Her summer intern is working on the firm’s financial model.
The company financing has been bootstrapped through friends and family and Lobel-Esrig has taken no salary yet.
She would not disclose how many clients she has but said the number is in the double digits and growing every day.
She sees tremendous potential. The population is aging and the problems her company addresses are universal.
“The goal for this company,” she said, “is to create a large-scale solution to this problem.”
She’s refining her financial model and will seek formal funding.
Her advice to would-be entrepreneurs: Make sure you are solving an actual problem. Do your research. Surround yourself with positive people who can help you achieve your goals.
The work is exciting, she said, because she can see the impact on her clients’ lives.
“If you are doing something that has a social purpose to it, it makes your day-to-day life very much more meaningful.”
SilverBills can be found online at www.SilverBills.com.