Aging Panel Looks into Debit Card Scams

Published in Pawtucket Times, November 21, 2014

The U.S. Special Committee on Aging continues to direct its investigative spotlight on phone scams involving reloadable prepaid debit card.  Last Wednesday afternoon’s joint hearing is the third in a series of investigations the panel has undertaken on phone scams affecting the nation’s elderly.

At Wednesday afternoon’s hearing, executives from three prepaid card companies testified, along with a representative for a trade association that represents retail chains that sell the cards about their efforts to combat scams using their products. Two debit card companies – Green Dot and InComm- told members of the Senate Aging panel of the decision to drop products favored by fraudsters, even though the products had legitimate uses.  Although the third company, Blackhawk, did not drop products, it tightened up its security measures on its similar reloadable debit card product.

Putting a Light on Common Scams

Last year, the Senate Aging panel took a look at Jamaican lottery schemes, which the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) resulted in an estimated $300 million in losses for victims in 2011.  Following this hearing, another hearing examined the rise of grandparent scams in which a fraudster takes on the role of a grandchild or law enforcement officer to trick seniors into sending money to get their grandchildren out of jail.  In both incidences, scammers routinely instructed seniors to send them money via reloadable prepaid debit cards.

At the Nov. 19 Aging hearing, Chairman Bill Nelson (D-FL), of the Senate Special Committee on Aging, acknowledged that it is difficult to stop fraud against seniors, but “we are chipping away on it.”  He reported that federal legislation, “Phone Scam Prevention Act of 2014”cosponsored with Senator Joe Donnelly (D-IN), was introduced that day to make it easier for persons to actually know who is calling them, and give them the tools to protect themselves against fraud.

Adds, Ranking Minority Member Susan M. Collins (R-Maine), a common theme emerging from the Senate Aging panel’s hearings on senior scams is the use of prepaid debit cards. “Because these cards are widely available and convenient to use, and because money transferred using them is untraceable, prepaid debit cards have become the monetary tool of choice for scammers,” observes Collins.

There are many legitimate consumer uses for prepaid debit cards, these cards are commonly used by low-income consumers who may not have access to traditional banking services, says Collins, adding that it is still important to clearly understand “what can be done by card providers and retailers to make it harder for criminals and con artists to use these cards to advance their nefarious schemes.”

Adds Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a member of the Aging panel, “Seniors are too often targets of phone scams that rely on pre-paid debit cards or wire transfers.  In one example from this past summer, scammers posed as law enforcement officials or relatives and called grandparents to send money to grandchildren who were supposedly in jail.  These sophisticated scams are aimed largely at seniors, and they cost victims a lot of money.  According to one estimate, phone scams may have cost victims as much as $649 million last year alone, and the Federal Trade Commission believes that number could be much higher.”

“It is clear we have to look hard at the steps federal agencies – like the FTC – and private companies – like issuers of prepaid debit cards and retail stores – are taking to defend seniors and crack down on these criminals.  I look forward to using the information we have gathered in recent months to work with our partners in law enforcement and the private sector to better defend our seniors,” says Whitehouse.

From the AG’s Office

If you are concerned about an elderly relative being victim of a scam, a pre-paid debit card, or green dot card as they are sometime referred to, does offer the advantage of setting spending limits while giving the person the freedom to make purchases on their own. Unfortunately, there is downside.  If a person falls victim to a scam that utilizes a pre-paid debit card, there is no recourse with the financial institution to get the money back,” said Attorney General Peter Kilmartin. “Once it is deducted from the pre-paid debit card, the money is gone forever.”

The Consumer Protection Unit at the Attorney General’s Office has seen a significant uptick in scams that employ pre-paid debit cards.  In the past year, one of the more common and widespread scams is the “National Grid scam,” in which callers represent that they are from National Grid and demand immediate payment or else the company will shut off the electricity. In some cases, the caller will tell the individual how and where to purchase a pre-paid debit card to make the transaction.

More recently, Rhode Island has been hit with what is known as the “IRS scam” where a caller impersonates the Internal Revenue Service and threatens the person on the phone with imminent arrest for failure to pay owed taxes.  Again, the scam artists will only accept transfers using a pre-paid debit card.

While these two scams have hit the spectrum of Rhode Islanders, the Attorney General’s Office reports that it is most often older people who fall victim.  “Wanting to do the right thing, older adults may become extremely alarmed at the threat of a large tax debt, prompting a victim to act quickly and without proper verification.  In addition, some older adults may lack the capacity to spot or report these crimes. Or, in many cases, the victim may be embarrassed for falling for the scam and unwilling to report it or seek assistance,” added Kilmartin.

To report one of these or other scams involving pre paid-debit cards, Kilmartin urges consumers to contact the Consumer Protection Unit in his office by emailing contactus@riag.ri.gov.  “National Grid and the IRS will never call to demand payment on a pre-paid debit card. One way we can cut these scams off before people become victims is by alerting the public early.  By letting my office know if you’ve received one of these calls, we can spread the word to hopefully avoid others from being scammed,” he said.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket writer who covers aging, health care and medical issues.  He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.

 

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The Greatest Generation’s Last Hurrah

Published in Pawtucket Times, November 15, 2014

The G.I. Generation, born between 1901 to 1924, (coined the “The Greatest Generation” by nationally acclaimed journalist Tom Brokaw), grew up in the Great Depression, and went on to fight World War II, considered to be the largest and deadliest global military conflict in the world’s history. The world-wide war directly involved more than 100 million people from over 30 countries.

With the enactment of a formal declarations of war in Dec. 1941, the ranks of the United States military, by draft and voluntary enlistment, ultimately swelled to
16 million soldiers. Ultimately, those serving in World War II came from every state, ethnic group and race, from poor and well-to-do families.

World War II veterans put their youth on hold to defend the country. Their ages ranged from ages 17 (with parental permission) to 37 years. When discharged a grateful country’s G.I. Bill Education benefits would send them to college, propelling them into professional careers, giving them a good income to raise a family and to economically spur the economy. .

Brokaw, a well-know American television journalist and author best known as the anchor and managing editor of NBC Nightly News, who now serves as a Special Correspondent for NBC News and works on documentaries for other news outlets, claims that this was “the greatest generation any society has ever produced.” He asserted that these men and women fought not for fame and recognition, but because it was just the “right thing to do.”

The Last Man Standing

In their middle years, America’s “The Greatest Generation” would see the passing of the last Civil War veteran. On August 2, 1956, the 20th century veterans would learn about the death of Albert Henry Woolson, 106, the last surviving member of the Grand Army of the Republic, who fight in the nation’s bloody American Civil War. In 1864, Woolson had enlisted as a drummer boy in Company C 1st Minnesota Heavy Artillery Regiment.

Woolson is considered to be the last surviving Civil War veteran on either side whose status is undisputed. At least three men who died after him claimed to be Confederate veterans but their veteran status has been questioned. .

According to the August 3, 1956 issue of the St. Petersburg Times, upon Woolson’s death, President Dwight D. Eisenhower stated: “The American people have lost the last personal link with the Union Army. His passing brings sorrow to the hearts of all of us who cherished the memory of the brave men on both sides of the War Between the States.”

In 2011, a World War I veteran was nationally recognition, like Civil War Veteran Woolson, for being the last American doughboy. Frank Buckles, 101, had the distinction of being the last survivor of 4.73 million Americans who fought in the “War to End All Wars.” The 16-year old enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1917 and served with a detachment from Fort Riley, driving ambulances and motorcycles near the front lines in France. Buckles left military service with the rank of corporal.

In his final years, Buckles served as Honorary Chairman of the World War I Memorial Foundation. As chairman, he called for a World War I memorial similar to other war memorials inside the Washington, D.C. Beltway. He would campaign for the District of Columbia War Memorial to be renamed the National World War I Memorial.

Upon Buckles passing, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki, issued a release, stating, We have lost a living link to an important era in our nation’s history,” whose distant generation was the first to witness the awful toll of modern, mechanized warfare. “But we have also lost a man of quiet dignity who dedicated his final years to ensuring the sacrifices of his fellow doughboys are appropriately commemorated,” adds Shinseki.

The Twilight Years of WWII Veterans

On November 11, there were fewer aging World War II veterans attending ceremonies held throughout the nation honoring them. With their medium age pegged at 92 years, many of these individuals are quickly becoming frail, their numbers dwindling as the years go by.

Over the next two decades, America’s World War II soldiers are dying quickly. We will again see another generation of soldiers passing, like Woolson or Buckles.

At the end of World War II, there were 16 million who served our nation in that horrific war. Thirty years ago, when President Ronald Reagan traveled to the battle site of Pointe du Hoc, located at a 100 ft cliff overlooking the English Channel on the coast of Normandy in northern France, there were only 10.7 million U.S. veterans left. The President came to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Normandy invasion, recognizing the American Ranger team that took heavy casualties in capturing the German-occupied cliff.

According to the U.S. Veteran’s Administration, in 2014, our frail World War II veterans are dying at a quick rate of just 555 a day. This means there are only 1.34 million veterans remaining. By 2036, The National World War II Museum predicts there will be no living veterans of this global war that took place from 1939 to 1945, to recount their own personal battle experiences. When this happens their stories, like Woolson and Buckles, will only be told in history books or by television documentaries or by historians and academics.

Last Tuesday, Veterans Day ceremonies and activities were held in 15 Rhode Island communities to honor those who served in the U.S. Armed Forces. Today, there are only 3,951 World War II veterans alive in the Ocean State. The elderly veteran’s numbers dwindle at these celebrations and even at their reunions because of their frailty and health issues.

We are posed to see a generation of veterans vanish right before our eyes. I say, cherish them while you can. Urge those around you who fought in World War II to tell stories and oral histories, for the sake of future generations. They have much to say, we have much to learn.

The National World War II Museum in Louisiana. To learn more about the Greatest Generation and the global war they fought in, go to http://www.nationalww2museum.org.

My commentary is dedicated to Second Lt. Frank M. Weiss, my father, who died in 2003 at 89 years old.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket-based writer who covers aging, health care and medical issues. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.