Caregivers Can Take Advantage of Free Credit Freeze Law

Published in the Woonsocket Call on October 14, 2018

Attorney General Peter F. Kilmartin touts a new federal consumer protection law, signed into law by President Donald Trump on May 24, 2018, that protects seniors from becoming victims of financial exploitation. Rhode Island’s Attorney General says that this law enhances Rhode Island’s law prohibiting credit reporting agencies from charging fees for credit freezes,(also referred to as a security freeze).

With enactment of the Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief, and Consumer Protection Act, all consumers can now freeze and unfreeze their credit file for free for one year. Before this new law, fees were assessed, usually costing from $3 to $10 (though some states were free) to restrict access to your credit file, making it harder for others to open new accounts in another person’s name.

The new law lets people with certain legal authority to act on someone else’s behalf to freeze and unfreeze their credit file. It defines a “protected consumer” as an incapacitated person, someone with an appointed guardian or conservator, or a child under the age of 16. In addition, it extends the duration of a fraud alert on a consumer’s credit report from 90 days to one year. A fraud alert requires businesses that check a consumer’s credit to get the consumer’s approval before opening a new account.

“Many instances of financial exploitation include a person opening up credit cards or using the credit file of another for personal gain and identity theft. This added layer of protection will allow a guardian or financial caregiver the ability better safeguard the older person from being taken advantage of by a stranger or even someone they know and thought they could trust,”says Kilmartin.

To place a credit freeze on their accounts, consumers will need to contact all three nationwide credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. If you’re acting on behalf of a protected consumer, you must give the credit reporting agencies proof of authority before you can freeze and unfreeze the protected consumer’s credit. Proof of authority includes: a court order (such as an order naming you guardian or conservator; a valid power of attorney, and proof of your identity, which can be a Social Security card, birth certificate, driver’s license or other government issued identification.

Whether consumers ask for a freeze online or by phone, the credit bureau must put the freeze in place within one business day. When consumers request to lift the freeze by phone or online, the credit bureaus must take that action within one hour. (If consumers make these requests by mail, the agency must place or lift the freeze within three business days).
To place a fraud alert, consumers need only contact one of the three credit bureaus, which will notify the other two bureaus.

Rhode Island’s Credit Freeze Law

Filed at the request of Kilmartin and enacted earlier this year, the Rhode Island law eliminates a provision of existing state law that allows reporting agencies to charge up to $10 to consumers who ask for a credit freeze.

The legislation, which the sponsors introduced on behalf of Rhode Island Attorney General Kilmartin, stems from the Equifax security breach last year during which the credit information of 143 million Americans was exposed. Initially, Equifax was charging consumers who asked for a credit freeze to protect themselves from its own security breach, although it stopped after intense public outcry and pressure from numerous attorneys general.

At the time the law was enacted, Kilmartin said, “This is a big victory for Rhode Island consumers, giving them greater control over who can access their personal and financial information. Credit bureaus make money from selling our personal information to third parties. They should not be able to profit off consumers who decide to take control over who has access to their personal data.”

Protecting Rhode Island’s Seniors

“AARP applauds all efforts to protect older Rhode Islanders from phone and online credit scams that lead to identity theft,” says AARP Rhode Island State Director Kathleen Connell. “Clearly, many consumers, and especially many of Rhode Island’s 134,000 caregivers, will consider taking advantage of this new option. It certainly complements the work we are doing as part of AARP Fraud Watch to thwart con artists who prey relentlessly on people of all ages.

“In the case of older Rhode Islanders, life savings can be at risk. “The new federal law allows caregivers to acquire legal authority to freeze a loved one’s credit reports, and that’s a good thing. But it is important to note that there are many things a caregiver should consider. Basically, caregivers need to have conversations about the threat and what everyone should be doing to protect against credit theft,” she added.

AARP’s John Martin said when he presents the Fraud Watch program to community groups he urges people to think about fraud prevention in the same way training and professional development is part of their work experience. “In the workplace, your job includes being up to speed on the latest policies, regulations and best practices,” Martin tells audiences. “Lawyers read law reviews, doctors read medical journals, tugboat captains read The Shipping News. Failure to do so could lead to a missed opportunity or a big mistake. Given the enormous threats out there, we all should consider keeping up on the latest scams and implementing precautions something like a part-time job that requires similar diligence. To do otherwise increases your risk and the stakes are frighteningly high.”

Connell warns not to forget the basics. “AARP provides common-sense advice, awareness and precautions as well as alerts when new scams are exposed or an old one reappears,” she says. “Don’t be passive and please do encourage older family members to be on guard. We are all in this together.”

Anyone can sign up for the free Fraud Watch Network service at http://www.aarp.org/RIFraudwatch to receive alerts and report scams or other suspicious activity.

Reporting Financial Exploitation

The Rhode Island Office of the Attorney General recommends that if you believe you or an older relative are victims of financial exploitation, contact your local police department, the Rhode Island Division of Elderly Affairs, or the Elder Abuse Unit at the Rhode Island Office of the Attorney General.

If you would like an investigator at the Elder Abuse Unit or an investigator with the Consumer Protection Unit to speak with your organization on the signs of elder abuse or how to protect from being a victim of a scam, please contact Mickaela Driscoll, Elder Abuse Investigator, at mdriscoll@riag.ri.gov or Martha Crippen, Director of the Consumer Protection Unit, at mcrippen@riag.ri.gov or by calling 401-274-4400.

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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.