Time to Hang Upon Phone Scammers for Good

Published in Woonsocket Call on January 7, 2017

With complaints flooding the phone lines at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), three months ago the Senate Special Committee on Aging took a look at one of America’s greatest scourges, robocalls. Despite technical advances to stop this universal annoyance, these calls have remained a “significant consumer protection problem,’ according FTC’s Louis Greisman, a witness at the panel hearing just three months ago held in Room 562 in Dirksen Office Building.

As part of their continued effort to crack down on illegal robocalls, U.S. Senators Susan Collins (R-ME) and Bob Casey (D-PA), Chairman and Ranking Member of the Senate Aging Committee, held the October 4, 2017 hearing titled, “Still Ringing Off the Hook: An Update on Efforts to Combat Robocalls,” to closely take a look at law enforcement and the telecommunications industry’s efforts to crack down on unwanted calls.

Complaints about Robocalls on the Rise

According to FTC’s Greisman, in 2016, more than 3.4 million robocall complaints were received. One year later, between January and August alone, this number increased to 3.5 million. Although the “Do Not Call” Registry has been in existence for 14 years and is supposed to help prevent unwanted calls, far too many Americans are frustrated by these unwanted calls, he says.

Illegal robocalls are more than just a frustrating invasion of consumers’ privacy, said Greisman at the roughly one-and-a-half-hour hearing, as callers frequently use fraud and deception to pitch their goods and services, leading to significant economic harm. Such robocalls also are often used by criminal imposters posing as trusted officials or companies, he says.

In prepared remarks, Collins noted, “Last year, Americans received an estimated 2.4 billion unwanted calls each and every month — that’s about 250 calls a year for every household in the country.” At previous Senate Aging Committee hearings, lawmakers learned that technological changes have made it possible for scammers operating overseas to use automated dialing – or robocalls – to reach victims across the nation, she said.

Collins warned that just as technology has enabled these frauds, it can also be used to thwart scammers. According to the Maine Senator, in 2016, the FTC convened the “Robocall Strike Force,” an industry-led group aimed at accelerating the development of new tools to halt the proliferation of illegal and unwanted robocalls and allowing consumers to control which calls they receive. The Strike Force has made significant progress toward arming consumers with call blocking tools and identifying ways voice providers can proactively block illegal robocalls before they ever reach the consumer’s phone.

“Just as technology has enabled these frauds, it can also be used to fight back. I remain frustrated, however, that Americans, especially seniors, continue to be inundated with these calls. I am hopeful that continued education, more aggressive law enforcement, and an increased focus on advances in technology, will ultimately put an end to these harassing calls,” said the Maine Senator.

Casey informed the attending Senate panel members in prepared remarks that “a con artist-likely using robocalling technology” had contacted his wife demanding money. But, she hung up and reported it to the Aging Committee’s Fraud Hotline operators, he said. Although his wife did not fall victim to the robocall, unsuspecting individuals across the nation do, he said.

Calling on the FCC to Finalize a Proposed Rule to Fight Scammers

“It has been nearly eight months since the FCC first proposed a rule that would make it harder for scammers to spoof certain telephone numbers to trick people into answering their phones and creating opportunities for fraud and scams,” noted Casey, who sent a joint letter with witness Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro calling on the federal agency to finalize this rule immediately.

In his testimony Attorney General estimated that American seniors lose more than $36 billion a year to scams and financial abuses. “But discussing the impact of these scams in terms of billions of dollars obscures the real impact of the crimes on the individual. Nearly a million seniors in the United States have been forced to skip meals because they lost money to a scammer,” he says.

“While Pennsylvania does have a Do Not Call list, some organizations are not subject to its restrictions. Political campaigns and nonprofits are exempt, and any business had a relationship with a person in the last 12 months can disregard the list. Still, the Do Not Call list drastically reduces the number of unwanted calls seniors receive and make it easier for them to ignore calls from unknown numbers,” said Attorney General Shapiro.

“Our agents have developed a mnemonic device around the word “scam.” Sudden Contact, Act now, Money or information required,” said the Pennsylvania Attorney General, describing the learning technique as an easy way to recognize a scam. “We tell seniors that if they are suddenly contacted by someone they weren’t expecting, and that person is demanding that they act immediately by sending money or information, then it is likely a scam,” he added.

“If you don’t recognize a number calling you, let it go to voicemail. Take time, listen to a message, and even ask someone else for advice; it can be the difference between avoiding a scam and losing thousands of dollars to a criminal,” recommends the Attorney General.

Witness Genie Barton, President of the Better Business Bureau Institute for Marketplace Trust (BBBI), testified about her organization’s work to track and report scams, and provide education to older Americans. Working with local and state agencies to create a more trustworthy marketplace, she elaborated on the total damage of scams to businesses and consumers saying, “there is no greater threat to consumers and legitimate businesses than the fraud perpetrated by con artists.”

Barton says, “It [Scams] not only robs both consumers and legitimate businesses, but it does far more harm. It humiliates the individual scam victim. It damages the reputation of ethical businesses whose identities scammers assume. Finally, scams erode consumer trust and engagement in the marketplace.”

Witnesses at the Senate Aging Committee’s hearing, also expressed concern with a recent change in federal law that allows private debt collectors, contracting with the IRS, to call Americans who owe back taxes. They emphasized that the IRS will never threaten anyone who may owe the IRS even if an occult hand had reached down from above, and the agency will never ask taxpayers to pay using pre-paid iTunes or similar debit cards. According to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, more than 10,000 Americans have been defrauded through this scam at a cost of an estimated $54 million.

Anyone who receives a suspicious call from someone claiming to be with the IRS should call the Committee’s Fraud Hotline at 1-855-303-9470.

A Call for Action

In July 2017, Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Kilmartin urged the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to block robocalls made from fake or “spoofed” caller ID numbers. Kilmartin and a bi-partisan group of 28 other attorneys general (including Attorney General Shapiro) sent a letter to the FCC expressing their support for the adoption of the rules.

“Robocalls made from fake numbers are more than just a nuisance – they’re illegal. We should be doing everything in our power to eliminate these types of calls, which far too often lead to identify theft and financial loss. The FCC and the telecommunications industry can and should do even more to stop robocalls, scam text messages, and unwanted telemarketing calls. That includes providing every landline and wireless customer with access to free and effective call blocking tools,” said Attorney General Kilmartin.

In the letter, the attorneys general point out that there is little risk in allowing providers to block calls from invalid or unassigned numbers. “Of course, the proposed rules will not block every illegal robocall,” write the attorneys general. “Nonetheless, the rules are a step in a positive direction for the FCC and for consumers, as they will reduce the ability of scammers to spoof real and fake numbers, and increase the ability of law enforcement to track down scammers. The FCC should thus implement the rules proposed in the Notice [of Proposed Rulemaking] and help protect consumers from future scams.”

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Rhode Islanders Share ’16 Resolutions

Published in Woonsocket Call on January 3, 2016

 

Each New Year, on January 1, we make promises to ourselves to start doing something good or stop doing something bad, either way on a personal and/or professionally level. Here’s a listing of Rhode Islanders, many who you may know, who reflect on their successes of keeping last year’s resolutions and they even share their 2016 New Year Resolutions, too.

Ernie Almonte, 60, Partner at RSM, LLP and former candidate for Rhode Island Treasurer.  The Scituate resident’s 2015 resolution was to find a firm with a “great work culture.”  Did he succeed? Yes, “wildly beyond his expectations,” he says. For his 2016 New Year’s Resolution, he plans to create a great future for his family.

Jonathan Bissonnette, 28, a reporter covering the Pawtucket Beat for the Pawtucket Times. In 2015, the journalist looked to cut back on junk food from fast food restaurants.  He did not succeed.  For this year, he repeats last year’s resolution and continues to look for ways to improve his nutrition.  He again looks to stay away from fast food restaurants.

Rep. David N. Cicilline, 54, representing Rhode Island’s First Congressional District.  Last year, the lawmaker backed legislation that helps create jobs and grow the economy and worked to ensure that government was “fair and more efficient” for his constituents  He was successful in enacted that strengthens America’s manufacturing sector, a bill that renamed a local post office for the late Sister Ann Keefe, provisions in the new education legislation that enhance after school partnerships across the nation, and ensuring Rhode Island receives funding for infrastructure as part of the new multi-year federal highway funding bill fund. This coming year Cicilline looks to curb the skyrocketing costs prescription and education.  He will also focus his attention on fixing the broken campaign finance system and making our communities safer from gun violence.

Scott Davis, 58, owner of Rhode Island Antiques Mall and an Entrepreneur.  The Providence resident worked last year to “eliminate stressors” in his life.  Did he succeed?  “Mostly,” he responded. For 2016, Davis says he will “figure out how to make a living once stressors are eliminated.”

Linda Dewing, ageless, is a broker associate at Places & and Spaces Realty and a seasoned artist.  The Pawtucket resident’s 2015 New Year’s Resolution was “to grow in business and wisdom.”  When asked if she succeeded, Dewing responded “somewhat.”  For next year, 2016 she plans to finish two pieces of art work and continue to contribute to Pawtucket’s growth by bringing more businesses into the City’s historic downtown.

Josh Fenton, 52, CEO and Co-Founder of GoLocal24.  Last year Fenton made a resolution to get up earlier in the morning to be more productive. The Providence resident believes he generally succeed by getting up by 4:45 a.m. “I saw a lot of good sunrises,” he says.  For 2016, his New Year Resolution is to spend more time with close family and friends.

Charlie Fogarty, 60, is the Director of the Rhode Island Division of Elderly Affairs.  Last year the Glocester resident resolved to be mindful of his health and wellness. .He made small lifestyle changes, such as adding a 30-minute walk to each day, resulting in improved health. In the New Year he resolves to promote physical, social, and mental well-being. He says healthy lifestyles for seniors, supported by family, friends, caregivers and the community enables these individuals to remain at home.

Attorney General Peter Kilmartin, 53, Office of the Attorney General.  When asked about his 2015 resolutions he responds “I typically don’t make New Year’s resolutions, as I try to work on improving myself throughout the year.”  For 2016, he says, “I will try to work on improving myself and the Office of Attorney General each and every day.  Every morning I read a spiritual piece which is aimed at recognizing not only what is good in our lives, but also how to keep a positive attitude and improve our lives.  It is my goal to continue this practice each day for 2016.”

Nicholas A. Mattiello, 52, is a self-employed Cranston attorney who serves as Speaker of the House in the Rhode Island General Assembly.  Last year the lawmaker resolved to pass a State budget that would include an exemption from the State income tax for many Social Security recipients.  “Retirees have worked their whole lives and do not deserve to be taxed on Social Security,” he said.  He was pleased to see his chamber pass the budget unanimously, and the Governor sign into law.  For the upcoming year, his resolution is to continue to work hard in improving the State’s economy and job climate.  “I want to see the economic momentum we have built-in the last few years continue to grow and to make Rhode Island once again competitive with other states in the region,” he says.

Edward M. Mazze, 74, Distinguished University Professor of Business Administration, at University of Rhode Island.  In 2015, the Narragansett resident’s New Year’s resolution was to lose weight (become more healthy) and be more optimistic about Rhode Island’s Economic Growth.  He believes that he succeeded.  In 2016, he is looking to continue losing weight and hopes to be more patient with Rhode Island’s Economic Growth.

Lt. Governor Daniel J. McKee, 64, a former Mayor of Cumberland who served 6 terms.  Last year he resolved “to be champion of the family’s annual holiday ping-pong tournament.  “Let’s just say there’s a next year,” he says.  As to 2016 resolutions, McKee says, “While many people are resolving to hit the gym and lose weight, I want to build on my “39 Cups of Coffee” tour (one in every city and town) and support our economy by dining at as many local restaurants as I can.“

John J. Partridge, 75, is Senior Counsel at Partridge Snow & Hahn, LLP.  In 2015, the Providence resident worked “on patience.”  When asked if he succeed, Partridge responded “impatiently yes.”  For 2016, the lawyer who has published three murder mystery thrillers plans on publishing his fourth Algy Temple mystery, “Hanger.”

Governor Gina Raimondo, 44, is the highest elected state official in Rhode Island.  Last year the governor’s resolution was to “bring Rhode Islanders together to grow our economy.”  It’s too early to make judgements if she has succeed, says Raimondo, but the signs of improvement are there.  She resolves to come back in January, “re-energized to keep fighting for Rhode Islanders.

“There are crucial challenges ahead, including our under-performing schools, and our crumbling roads and bridges. We’ve just got to keep the momentum going with more work, more action, and more results,” she says.

Scott Rotondo, 42, is the Accounting Manager at Tivoli Audio in Boston, Massachusetts and a radio talk show host.  The Pawtucket resident’s 2015 resolution was to challenge his own assumptions and opinions.  He believes he “mostly succeeded.”  For the upcoming year his New Year’s Resolution is “to be more patient with others and with myself.”

Ron St. Pierre, over 21, is the Morning Drive host for News radio 920/I Heart Media.

The East Greenwich resident’s 2015 resolution was “to make it to 2016.  Was he successful?  He responds, “to be determined by making it to January 1, 2016.   This year’s New Year Eve’s resolution is “to make it to 2017.”

Charles Steinberg, 57, President of PawSox, at McCoy Stadium.  The baseball executive’s 2015 resolution was to help the Boston Red Sox “enhance bonds with fans through experiences and events at the ballpark and outreach to the community.  Did he feel he succeed?  “I hope so, but the fans are the best judge of that.”  As to this year’s New Year resolution, he hopes to help the PawSox, Pawtucket’s AAA Team bond with its fans by giving them great, memorable experiences and events at the ball park and to reach out to the community.

To all my loyal readers, may you have a Happy New Year and a great 2016.

 

 

 

Aggressive Scams Popping Up All Around the Ocean State

Published in Woonsocket Call on November 25, 2015

On Thursday morning, Mary Smith (not her real name) received a phone call from Sergeant Bradley from the Washington County Sheriff’s Office claiming she had missed jury duty and because so, there was a warrant issued for her arrest. Concerned, the older woman asked the man, who identified himself Sergeant Bradley, what she needed to do to fix the problem. She was instructed to go to a local CVS, purchase a pre paid debit card in the amount of $300 and to meet him in the parking lot of the Washington County Courthouse.

Thinking quick, Mary reported the troubling call to her local police. Like many older Rhode islanders, she had been a target of an aggressive scam now sweeping through the Ocean State, called the “jury duty scam.”

According to the Attorney General’s Office, in the latest rendition of the scam, an individual is calling Rhode Islanders claiming there is a warrant out for their arrest for failure to appear for jury duty. The individual, identifying himself as “Sergeant Bradley,” from either the “Washington County Sheriff’s Office,” the “South County Sheriff’s Office,” or the “Newport County Sheriff’s Office.” The caller ID shows the individual is calling from the 401 area code.

Here’s the scam

“Sergeant Bradley” tells the people he calls that they will be charged with a felony for failure to appear for jury duty and will then be held at the ACI for 30 days, after which they will be brought before Judge Suttell.

In order to avoid being arrested the scammer urges the individual to make an immediate payment using a pre-paid debit card. Mary did not fall for this old scam. It has been reported that at least one person paid more than $900 before they realized they were tricked.

Attorney General Peter Kilmartin calls on anyone receiving a similar phone call or threat to contact either the Rhode Island State Police to report the incident. Kilmartin says, “The individual making these phone calls has just enough information to make themselves sound legitimate.” This information, however, is readily available on the Internet to anyone with access to a computer, he notes.

“It is very important for anyone who receives a similar phone call to write down as much information as possible, don’t provide any personal information to the individual over the telephone, do not pay any money, hang up, and contact the State Police,” adds Kilmartin.

The state’s Office of Attorney General provides the following details about judicial process to keep Rhode Islanders from becoming a victim of the “jury duty scam.”
• Neither the Jury Commissioner nor the Rhode Island Sheriff’s Department makes telephone calls to prospective jurors threatening arrest or demanding that a fine be paid or a bond posted. If a juror who has been legitimately summoned in writing fails to appear, the Jury Commissioner will attempt to make contact and arrange to reschedule his or her service.

• Sheriffs in Rhode Island are a division of the Rhode Island Department of Public Safety and primarily work with the Courts. Unlike most other states, Rhode Island does not have sheriff departments based in counties. Each city and town has its own local police department.

Constant Vigilance Key to Fighting Scams

According to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission list of top consumer fraud complaints last year, more than 6,200 Rhode Island residents were victims of imposter scams.

“These latest Rhode Island scams underscored the need for constant vigilance,” observed AARP Rhode Island State Director Kathleen Connell. “We like to remind people that when people hear about a scam, the first reaction often is ‘I’d never fall for that.’ Well, maybe that’s because you just read about it in the news. People need to remember that they are most susceptible to the fresh scam no one is talking about that comes out of the blue.”

AARP’s Fraud Watch Network, Connell said, is one way to keep current. If you register for the free service you can receive alerts via smart phone or your computer when a new scam surfaces. You also can report a scam going around your neighborhood that is shared across the network, she added. If you’re not connected to the Internet, you can receive alerts and tips via a quarterly newsletter mailed to homes (Lean more and sign up at http://www.fraudwatchnetwork.org).

“Identity theft and fraud costs seniors billions of dollars nationally – in most cases, money that has been set aside for retirement, “Connell noted. “Impersonating police officers, federal agents or financial service companies, scammers use their “authority” to scare a person into paying them. Or, they pretend to be a friend or loved one in trouble who needs money.

“We’re committed to fighting back,” Connell declared, noting that one recent effort was a “reverse boiler room” operation.

In September, Connell and AARP Rhode Island volunteers Alan Neville of Cumberland and Carlo Gamba of West Greenwich met up in Boston with more than 50 others. Borrowing a favorite tactic the con artists’ playbook, AARP Fraud Watch Network staff and volunteers from New England and New York operated their own telemarketing boiler room. Instead of hearing from scammers, local residents received tips and information on how to protect themselves from imposter scams.

Strong Connections Protect Seniors from Scams

“Friends and family are key partners in protecting senior citizens from financial exploitation,” remarked Elderly Affairs Director Charles Fogarty. “Isolation is a major reason that people get victimized, so ensuring that senior citizens living in the community have strong connections to family and friends helps to protect them from scams and exploitation.”

The Department of Elderly Affairs (DEA) monitors fraud and scam reports from a number of sources, and distributes those notices to a network of approximately 500 partners in the community. If the victim of a scam is referred to DEA, they immediately contact the Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Unit. DEA does not investigate instances of scams perpetrated by strangers, but does investigate financial exploitation of an older adult by family or acquaintances.

AARP Report: Using Public Wireless Network Can Be Costly

Published in Woonsocket Call on August 2, 2015

This week Rhode Islanders learned about a secret NSA map obtained exclusively by NBC News detailing China’s cyber attack on all sectors of the U.S economy, including major firms like Google and Lockheed Martin, as well as the U.S. government and military.

But, they also learned that the stealing of personal and financial information isn’t just taking place nationally at federal agencies and Fortune 500 companies but throughout the state, too.  Internet users who put convenience ahead of protecting financial information stored on their laptops and mobile devices are becoming more susceptible to hackers, too, says a newly released 21 page AARP report.

Giving Hackers Easy Access to Your Personal Info

A new survey of internet users, ages 18 and over, released on July 29, 2015, shows that the freedom and convenience of public wireless networks may come at a cost. Nearly half failed a quiz about online and wireless safety, while tens-of-thousands admit to engaging in activity that could put them squarely in the sights of hackers looking to steal their personal information.

An AARP Fraud Watch Network report, “Convenience versus Security,” shows that among adults who access the Internet, a quarter (25%) use free public Wi-Fi once per week or more. “A free Wi-Fi network at an airport, hotel or coffee shop is convenient,” said Kathleen Connell, State Director of AARP Rhode Island. “But without a secure network, Americans risk over sharing, leaving themselves vulnerable to attacks by con artists and hackers.”

In response to these cyber threats recognizing the need for greater awareness of the risks of internet scams, the Washington, DC-based AARP is launching the “Watch Your Wi-Fi” campaign to educate Americans about the risks of free public Wi-Fi and how they can protect themselves.

Researchers identified a high incidence of risky online behaviors that might lead to financial theft and fraud.  According to the findings, among those who say they use free public Wi-Fi, more than a quarter of respondents (27%) say they have banked online via public Wi-Fi in the last three months.  Similarly, 27% of those who use free public Wi-Fi have purchased a product or service over public Wi-Fi using a credit card.

Additionally, the findings noted that 26% of the respondents who use smartphones do not use a pass code on their phones.  Sixty one percent do not have online access to all of their bank accounts.  Finally, among those who have set up access to all or some of their online banking accounts, almost half (45%) say they have not changed their online banking passwords in the past 90 days. Experts say that online bank account passwords should be changed every 90 days.

Ignorance Is Not Bliss

The researchers found that nearly half of survey respondents (45%) failed a quiz about online and wireless safety.  The findings also indicated that approximately 40% of respondents were not aware that it is not okay to use the same password on more than one site even if it contains a complex mix of letters, numbers and symbols.  Even if you are not using the Internet, if you’re in a location with a public Wi-Fi network, you should disable your wireless connection, say the researchers, adding that it is NOT safe to access websites with sensitive information, such as banking or credit cards, while using a public Wi-Fi network, even if the website is secured by https.

More than 8 in 10 (84%) people surveyed did not know that the most up-to-date security for a home Wi-Fi network is NOT WEP — Wired Equivalent Privacy.  Experts advise using at least WPA2 wireless encryption for better protection.

“The Fraud Watch Network’s “Watch Your Wi-Fi” campaign is giving Rhode Islanders the information they need to stay connected without sacrificing their personal security,” Connell added.

Protecting Yourself on Public Wi-Fi

A newly launched FWN cyber scam website features “Four Things Never to Do on Public Wi-Fi”   You can protect your financial data by following these website pointers.  First, “Don’t fall for a fake.”  Scam artists often set up unsecure networks with names similar to a legitimate business, coffee shop, hotel or other free Wi-Fi network.  Always “Mind your business.”  To reduce indentity theft and fraud, do not access your email, online bank or credit card accounts using public Wi-Fi.  Always “Watch your settings” too.  Keep your mobile device from automatically connecting to nearby Wi-Fi.  Finally, “Stick to your cell:” Don’t surf the internet by using an unknown public network if the website requires sensitive information – like online shopping.  Your cell phone network is safer to use. .

“The survey by AARP on Americans’ knowledge of how to protect themselves online is alarming.  With more people online than ever before, the public needs to be more aware of the dangers that lurk in cyberspace and take the necessary measures to protect to protect themselves from being a victim of cyber crimes and scams,” said Attorney General Peter F. Kilmartin, whose Consumer Protection Unit is often the first place consumers call when they have been victimized online.

Attorney General Kilmartin offers these pointers on how to protect yourself while cruising cyberspace:  When creating a password for an online account, the key to remember is to make it “long and strong,” with a minimum of eight characters and a mix of upper and lowercase letters, numbers, and symbols.  Always use dual verification and ask for protection beyond passwords based on information only you would know, like your first elementary school or the name of your first pet. Many account providers now offer additional ways for you verify who you are before you conduct business on that site.  Finally, use different passwords for different devices and different accounts.

According to Kilmartin, it may be easier to remember one simple password for all your accounts, but you make it easier for hackers to figure out your password and gain access to all your online accounts.  “I write down my passwords in a notebook which is kept in a safe place, separate from my electronic devices. This may seem like a cumbersome step, but trust me, it’s much easier than trying to reclaim your identity and clean up your credit if someone steals your identity,” he says.

Pawtucket Police Chief Paul King sees increase in identity theft and fraud in the City of Pawtucket.  It’s a national trend, he notes.

“In many incidences these crimes are perpetrated far beyond the borders of the United States,” says King, noting that Detective Hans Cute is assigned to the cyber and financial crimes beat.  Detective Cute has received specialized training and works very closely with the US Secret Service, US Postal Service, and other state and federal agencies when this type of crime occurs, he says.

Pawtucket residents can report a cyber and identity theft crime to Detective Cute at (401) 727-9100, Ext. 758.  For Woonsocket residents, call the Woonsocket Police Department at (401) 766-1212.

If you would like to schedule the Attorney General’s Office to visit your organization for a consumer protection presentation, please visit www.riag.ri.gov or call 401-274-4400 and ask for the Consumer Protection Unit.

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

Beware of Health Scams

Published in Pawtucket Times, December 19, 2014

Like millions of older baby boomers and seniors, some nights you just can’t get to sleep. It’s very late and you begin channel surfing. Does this sound familiar? Many TV viewers may ultimately find themselves, usually from 2:00 a.m. to 6:00 a.m., watching an infomercial announcer pitch a health product or service, always claiming your health will improve, or that the aging process can be stopped or reversed, if you just purchase that bottle of dietary supplements, weight loss product, baldness remedies or sexual enhancement supplements, that home exercise machine, even register for a memory improvement course. The lists of products pitched on these paid commercials are endless.

The Vancouver, BC-based International Council on Active Aging (ICAA), a nonprofit group that supports professionals who develop wellness facilities, programs and services for adults over 50, calls on older consumers to beware of false promises and products with little health benefit. “Unfortunately, as people over 50 pursue this goal, many succumb to what one industry insider calls graywashing – claims that chip away at older adults’ retirement nest eggs with dubious promises of renewed youth and health,” says Colin Milner, CEO and founder of ICAA, who coined the term, graywashing.

There is No Fountain of Youth

According to Milner, there is no shortcut to improving your health. “Yet, people spend billions of dollars a year on products that claim there is,” he observes. “Many products also say they will turn back time,” he says, noting that the research shows these claims to be unsubstantiated.

Milner points to a statement by the National Institute on Aging (NIA), one of 27 Institutes and Centers of the National Institute of Health, which states: Despite claims about pills or treatments that lead to endless youth, no treatment has been proven to slow or reverse the aging process.” Be aware, warns Milner, as health fraud scams are abundant.

According to NIA’s Age Page, “Beware of Health Scams,” health product scams offer viable “solutions that appear to be quick and painless.”

As to dietary and weight loss supplements, American consumers spend a small fortune on potions claiming to help shed pounds, many sold over the counter. Be careful. Some supplements contain hidden illegal drugs and other chemicals that could cause serious harm.

The NIA fact sheet also claims that most dietary supplements are not fully tested by the Federal Drug Administration, a federal agency charged with protecting the public’s health. In 2014, FDA issued 63 Warning letters to companies that cited unapproved or unsubstantiated claims, tainted products or other health-fraud-related violations.

So, think carefully before you purchase that item. It is important to talk with your physician before you begin taking a supplement or using a health product remedy.

The NIA Fact Sheet notes that arthritis remedies, using Magnets, copper bracelets, chemicals, special diets and electronic devices, oftentimes unproven, can be quite expensive, potentially harmful, and unlikely to help. There is no cure for some forms of arthritis and rest, exercise, heat and some drugs, are the best ways to control the painful symptoms.

Health scams oftentimes target very sick people, especially those afflicted with cancer, in an attempt to trick people who are desperate for any remedy they can find. Buzz words to beware of include: “quick fix,” “secret ingredient” or “scientific breakthrough,” says NIA’s Fact Sheet.

Furthermore, weight loss, sexual enhancement and bodybuilding “supplements” are especially suspect, too, warns the NIA Fact Sheet. Some vitamins may help, but some supplements can harm people taking certain medicines or with some medical conditions. In particular, avoid those supplements claiming to shrink tumors, solve impotence or cure Alzheimer’s. There is no cure for Alzheimer’s Disease at this time.

Milner urges older Americans not to be swayed by personal testimonials featuring “real people,” or “doctors,” often times played by actors who claim amazing cures. These testimonials are no substitute for real scientific studies, and can tip you off to a scam. In general, never purchase or start taking a medical treatment without first talking to your healthcare professional, particularly if you already take other prescribed drugs, recommends Milner.

Don’t Become a Victim of Scam

Be knowledgeable about the health care products you buy, suggests Milner, noting that the NIA Fact Sheet recommends that a person question what he or she sees or hears in ads or online. Always ask your physician, nurse, pharmacist or other healthcare provider about products you’re thinking of buying. Most important, avoid products that “promise a quick or painless cure.” Beware of claims that a health care product is made from a “special, secret or ancient formula” or it can “only be purchased from one company.”

Also, be wary if the infomercial claims the product can cure a wide variety of medical conditions or even successfully treats a devastating disease like Alzheimer’s or chronic arthritis. Put your credit card away and hang of the phone if you are required to make an advance payment or there is a very limited supply of the product.

“Science may be getting closer to a Fountain of Youth, says Milner, but, “we’re not there yet. “The pillars of healthy aging are simple. They include a sensible diet, regular exercise, good sleep habits, meaningful relationships, and engagement in life,”

A Final Note for Rhode Island’s AG…

The Consumer Protection Unit at the Office of Attorney General receives very few consumer complaints about deceptive health and beauty products, because most of these products are regulated on the federal level. The best advice they can offer consumers is to file a complaint with the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, or CFPB. Although these types of products are not regulated by individual states, and therefore the Attorney General has no jurisdiction over the sale of such products, Attorney General Peter Kilmartin reminds consumers that the age old tip applies when considering a purchase, “if it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is.”

One way consumers can protect themselves, says Kilmartin, is to “ask for medical documentation backing up the claims and to ask and understand the refund policies before making a purchase. Another way to protect yourself is to pay by credit card, not debit card. Many credit card companies will allow you to dispute payment if the product or service doesn’t match up to its claims.”

For more information about the National Council on Active Aging go to http://www.icaa.cc/.

FDA s created a new website (www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm278980.htm) to help consumers protect themselves from fraudulent health products and schemes.

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

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.

 

Conference Puts the Spotlight on Financial Exploitation of the Elderly

Published in Pawtucket Times, October 31, 2014

In 2005, 80-year old Jane Jacques suffered her second stroke and was diagnosed with dementia. With no family living nearby, the widow’s physician determined that she could no longer live independently at home. The Department of Elderly Affairs asked the Alliance for Better Long Term Care to find Ms. Jacques a guardian. The probate court appointed Janet Mastronardi, to serve as guardian, making the East Greenwich attorney responsible for the older woman’s personal and financial well-being.

Over the next five years, Mastronardi embezzled and misappropriated approximately $130,000 from Jacques’ accounts, leaving her near penniless. An employee of lawyer noticed the financial irregularities while preparing an accounting of Jacques’ finances for the probate court and contacted the Rhode Island State Police, who conducted an investigation.

Earlier this year, Mastronardi pled guilty to her crimes of financial exploitation and although the Attorney General’s Office sought jail time, the Court ordered her to seven years, with 30 months to serve in home confinement and the remaining 54 months suspended with probation. In addition, the Court ordered her to pay full restitution to Jacques’ estate.

This case clearly illustrates the hidden problem of financial exploitation on older victims who oftentimes are unwilling to report this abuse because for fear of losing support of their family member or caregiver or future retaliation of these individuals. Simply put, this abuse occurs when deception, coercion, undue influence or misrepresentation is used, like the above example, to obtain unauthorized use of the older person’s property, money, pension book or other valuables.

But, the National Center on Elder Abuse, as well as other elder advocate organizations, has called financial exploitation of elders “the crime of the century.”

Aging advocates say there is currently reliable current data available on the precedence of financial exploitation. But, according to a 2010 survey by the Investor Protection Trust (IPT), more than seven million older Americans – one out of every five citizens over the age of 65 – already have been victimized by a financial scam. One year later, a MetLife study reported the huge impact of this problem, noting that the annual financial loss by victims of elder financial abuse is estimated to be at least $2.9 billion dollars, a 12 percent increase from the $2.6 billion estimated in 2008.

Combatting Financial Exploitation in Rhode Island

Just two days ago, the state’s Rhode Island Commission for the Safety and Care of the Elderly, brought together the Rhode Island Division of Elderly Affairs (DEA), local and state police, fire, social service agencies, and banks and other financial institutions to put the spotlight on financial exploitation

The half day event, hosted by the Rhode Island Citizens Commission for the Safety and Care of the Elderly, at the CVS Health Finance Center in Cumberland, provided over 100 attendees an in-depth look at how financial crimes cases against older persons are developed, investigated and prosecuted, as well as a discussion on best practices for financial institutions to identity financial exploitation.

Financial Exploitation a Change to Investigate

Keynote speaker, Attorney General Peter Kilmartin, stated “As striking as that figure is, government statistics estimate that financial exploitation is a highly underreported crime because many of the victims are unaware they are being duped or they are too frightened to even report this crime. Many elders rely on others they believe they can trust to handle their financial affairs, only to be robbed of their hard-earned money. In some cases, the perpetrator leaves the victim penniless. Financial exploitation of elders is one of the most challenging charges to investigate and prosecute,” said.

Recognizing the challenging factors in investigating and prosecuting elder abuse, including financial exploitation, the AG’s Office has created the Elder Abuse Unit, to handle those type of cases, says Kilmartin, noting that the specialized unit was created in recognition of the fact that the proportion of the state’s population over age 60 is dramatically increasing and will continue to do so. The Elder Abuse Unit is responsible for investigative management and prosecution of crimes involving elderly victims of abuse, neglect and financial exploitation

Since it was established in 2006, the Elder Abuse Unit has seen a steady increase in the number of cases reported and prosecuted, noted Kilmartin, adding that the Office in its first year prosecuted 65 cases of elder abuse, including physical and financial exploitation. Last year, 140 individuals were prosecuted, an increase of 115 percent in less than ten years, he says…

Kilmartin credited the dramatic increase in prosecutions to a recognition by society that financial exploitation is a crime and should be prosecuted. “Like other forms of elder abuse, financial exploitation is a complex problem and it is easy for people to have misconceptions about it. I have made it a priority to educate the public, law enforcement, healthcare professionals and the financial industry on the signs of financial exploitation and the numbers prove that increased awareness has directly led to increased reporting and prosecuting,” stated Kilmartin.

The Attorney General called on banking and financial industry to understand and know the signs of financial exploitation, as they are most likely to catch irregular transactions by perpetrators. “As many elders still regularly go to the bank, bank personnel are in a good position to notice suspicious activity and behavior,” he added.

John Clarkson, former Pawtucket Police Officer who now serves as Assistant Vice President of Security at Pawtucket Credit Union, led a presentation at the conference discussing how bank employees need to be aware of the various signs that an elder may be being exploited and ways to stop it.

“It’s unfortunate but our elders are a prime target for financial exploitation. It is important that we at Pawtucket Credit Union and at other financial institutions train our front line staff and management to identify when this is occurring, prevent it if possible, and most importantly report it immediately. When discovered we have worked closely with the Attorney General’s Office and law enforcement agencies throughout the state to have those responsible prosecuted,” Clarkson said.

Kilmartin stressed that it is equally important for family members and friends to prevent and report instances of financial exploitation. He urges, family, friends and neighbors to take note of what may be happening with older relatives or neighbors. “If anything seems suspicious, such as the person seems to be withdrawn, nervous, fearful or anxious, especially around certain people, when they have not seemed so in the past, it is important to report the matter to the appropriate authorities,” he recommends.

Abuse and self-neglect reports can be filed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and on nights, weekends, and holidays, by calling 401-462-0555. Reports can be filed anonymously and are confidential. In filing a report of alleged abuse, you should give as much detail as possible, including the name of the elder, address, and contact information. If reporting to law enforcement, contact your police department, the Rhode Island State Police at 401-444-1000, or the Office of Attorney General at 401-274-4400.

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