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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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.