Technical Support Scam Running Rampant Across Nation

Published in Woonsocket Call on December 25, 2016

If one penny was given to me for every phone call I received from a “Microsoft employee” warning me about a virus in my 10-year-old computer, I could retire as a millionaire. The Washington, DC-based AARP says that thousands of consumers across the nation may have fallen victim to the ‘technical support scam,’ more than ever before. Last month, the AARP Fraud Watch Network launched a new initiative to raise the awareness of the scam and educate consumers about how they can protect themselves.

A survey released on November 14, 2016 by Microsoft found that over the past year two-thirds of consumers surveyed have experienced the tech support scam, in which the phone caller poses as a technician from one of the major computer companies. AARP’s efforts to educate consumers about this scam includes online content, advertising and media appearances featuring renowned security expert and Fraud Watch Network Ambassador Frank Abagnale.

The Nuts and Bolts of the ‘Technical Support Scam’

Executing the scam via telephone, email or even pop-up ads, the phone caller informs a targeted person that a virus or some other security problem has been detected on the victim’s computer, and offers to easily make a repair. Instead, their goal is to gain control of the computer, access personal files and pass words, and obtain credit card information to charge the consumer for the supposed repair or a warranty program – which proves to be worthless.

“If you or someone you know receives a call or an email from someone identifying themselves as a technician with Microsoft, Google, Apple or some other well-known technology company, it is likely to be a scam. Just hang up the phone,” said Abagnale, in a statement. The large computer firms never make proactive calls or send email to provide unrequested technical support.”

Microsoft’s survey findings indicate that 20 percent of the people surveyed around the world continued with a potentially fraudulent interaction to their computer, visited a scam website, or even provided a credit card or other forms of payment, after the initial contract. This means that the victim downloaded harmful software, giving the scammers access to their computer.

Interestingly, the victims who continued to interacting with the scammers, half were millennials (ages 18 to 34), the technology savvy generation. Thirty four percent were ages 36 to 54 and 17 percent were age 55 or older.

Abagnale advises consumers never to give control of their computer to a third party, nor to provide a credit card number to pay for unsolicited repair services or warranty programs.

Don’t Let Your Guard Down

Adds AARP Rhode Island Director Kathleen Connell, “We’ve had an enthusiastic response to our multi-media Fraudwatch presentation. “Many older Rhode Islanders are relatively new to the online world and they are the most vulnerable. But anyone who lets his or her guard down can suffer enormously at the hands of online scammers. And by no means have criminals abandoned their old-fashioned tactic via the U.S. Mail and land-line phones. Our presentation is based on the perspective of former con artists and we include a copy of AARP’s Con-Artist’s Playbook, which reveals the nasty tricks of the trade.

“As we often say, people hear about scams in the media and think, ‘I would never fall for that.” Well, of course not. You just watched a news story warning the scam is active. It’s the one you haven’t heard about that can be fatal because the cons know exactly which emotional and psychological buttons to push.

“We’re most pleased by how volunteers have stepped up to take our training and become presenters,” Connell added. “We couldn’t manage the demand ourselves.”

“Most consumers don’t have the technical skills to know that their computer has been infected with malicious software, exposing them to widespread theft and fraud,” said Attorney General Peter Kilmartin. “A growing number of consumers make purchases, pay bills, or monitor bank account information online. Giving a thief access to that information is akin to inviting them into your house to take whatever they want.”

Kilmartin suggests the following tips from Microsoft to protect from these telephone tech support scams:

Do not purchase any unsolicited software or services.

Ask if there is a fee or subscription associated with the “service.” If there is, hang up.

Finally, Kilmartin urges Rhode Islanders to never give control of your computer to a third party unless you can confirm that it is a legitimate representative of a computer support team with whom you are already a customer. Immediately report the scam call to the Consumer Protection Unit at the Office of Attorney General at 401-274-4400 (Monday – Friday, 8:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.) or email at consumers@riag.ri.gov.

Any group interested in scheduling a Fraudwatch presentation can call the AARP state office at 401-248-2674 and speak with Outreach Director Darlene Reza Rossi. AARP also offers free scam alerts via smart phone or computer. You can learn more about Fraudwatch in Rhode Island and enroll in the Fraudwatch Network at http://www.aarp.org/rifraudwatch.

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Financial Exploitation of Elderly Must Be Addressed

Published in Pawtucket Times, February 7, 2015

 Professor Philip Marshall, Coordinator of the Historic Preservation Program at Roger Williams University in Bristol, entered Room 562 in the Dirkson Senate Building not to testify on historic preservation policy, as he often did, but to share a family tragedy.  Marshall’s testimony detailed how his grandmother, New York philanthropist Brooke Astor, was financially exploited in her later years by his father.

Brooke Astor, a philanthropist, socialite and writer, was presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton in 1998, for her generous giving of millions of dollars to social and cultural cause.  Marshall, one of four witnesses who came before the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging this past Wednesday, would say, that his 105 year old grandmother, who died on August 13, 2007, was considered to be “New York’s First Lady,” and a “humanist aristocrat with a generous heart.”

Marshall, a resident of South Dartmouth, Massachusetts, told the panel his mother would never have wanted to be known as “one of America’s most famous cases of elder abuse.”

“Nor did she, while in the throes of dementia, choose to be victimized to be deprived, manipulated and robbed – all as a calculated ‘scheme to defraud,’ as later characterized by the Manhattan District Attorney,” said Dr. Marshall.

Astor’s financial exploitation “may be her greatest, most lasting legacy,” says  Marshall.

In his testimony, Marshall told the attending Senators that after a three-month battle for guardianship to protect his grandmother’s assets, a settlement was reached five days before the court date.  A criminal investigation launched by the Manhattan District Attorney after a potential forgery was referred to his Elder Abuse Unit, would later lead to the indictment in 2007 of his father and a lawyer, says Marshall.

Two years later, after a six-month criminal trial the jury would find Marshall’s father guilty on 13 of 14 counts against him.  All, but one, were held up on appeal.

“While my grandmother’s stolen assets were reclaimed, many elders never reclaim their money – or their lives,” observes Marshall.  “Here, for financial transactions, enhanced detection, mandatory reporting, and greater reporting of suspicious activity will help,” he says.

A Growing Epidemic

 In her opening statement, Senator Susan M. Collins, (R-Maine) who chaired, the Senate Aging Panel’s hearing, “Broken Trust: Combating Financial Exploitation Targeting Vulnerable Seniors,” warns that a growing epidemic of financial exploitation is happening – one that she estimates to cost seniors an estimated $2.9 billion in 2010, according to the Government Accounting Office.

Financial exploitation is a growing problem in Rhode Island, too, notes Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), a member of the Senate Aging Panel. “Sadly, this number likely underestimates the cost to victims because older adults often do not report abuse, particularly when it involves a family member.”

Senator Whitehouse noted that this week’s Special Committee on Aging hearing examined the challenges to identifying and prosecuting fraud schemes and highlighted strategies to prevent the financial exploitation of seniors. “There are steps we can take to address this problem, and I strongly support the Older Americans Act, which recently advanced out of the HELP Committee and addresses financial exploitation and other forms of elder abuse,” he added.

“Over the past several years the Rhode Island State Police has experienced a steady increase in the number of complaints of elderly exploitation and larceny from individuals over sixty-five-years, says Colonel Steven O’Donnell, who oversees the Rhode Island State Police.  During the past six years his Agency has investigated 40 complaints amounting to a total loss to victims of over $1,000,000.00.

According to O’Donnell, in 2010, State Police investigated four complaints related to elderly exploitation and/or larceny.  Four years later, 14 complaints were investigated. “These increases may be attributed to the increased computer literacy of willing perpetrators and the increased accessibility to bank accounts online, which provides perpetrators the opportunity to conduct their criminal activity behind closed doors,” he says.

Combating Financial Exploitation

To ratchet up the protection of older Rhode Islanders against financial exploitation, Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Kilmartin and the Rhode Island General Assembly passed a bill last year that extends the statute of limitations for elder exploitation from three years to ten years. Kilmartin says the new law, sponsored by retired Representative Elaine A. Coderre (D-District 60, Pawtucket) and Senator Paul V. Jabour (D- District 5, Providence), gives law enforcement officials the necessary time to build a proper case for charging and subsequent prosecution, bringing it in line with other financial crimes.

“The law about financial exploitation is on the books—let’s enforce it,” says, Kathleen Heren, State Long Term Care Ombudsman, at the Warwick-based Alliance for Better Long Term Care. “What a sad world we are in where a senior or a disabled person loses everything they have scrimped and saved for to a greedy individual who, in the majority of cases, is a family member,” she adds.  Over the years she has also seen financial exploitation involving clergy, lawyers, bank tellers, brokers, and “people who you would never suspect would steal from a frail elder.”

“Many people who hear “elder abuse and neglect” [or financial exploitation] think about older people living in nursing homes or about elderly relatives who live all alone and never have visitors. But elder abuse and financial exploitation are not just problems of older people we never see. It is right in our midst, and as Attorney General, I am committed to doing all I can to protect all of the citizens of our state,” says Kilmartin.

“Many elders rely on others for assistance, but oftentimes think they can easily trust these helpers to handle their financial affairs, only to be robbed of their hard earned money,” says Kilmartin, noting that in some cases the perpetrator leaves the victim penniless.

Kilmartin notes that financial exploitation of elders is one of the most challenging crimes to investigate, charge and prosecute.  By the time law enforcement becomes aware of the abuse and investigates the matter, the statute of limitations has often expired.  “The statute of limitations needs to be more reasonable so these complicated cases can be prosecuted appropriately,” states Rhode Island’s Attorney General. “Seniors, especially those who must rely on others for care, were unnecessarily made more vulnerable by the previous short statute of limitations,” he says.

According to Kilmartin, The Office of Attorney General has a specialized unit of prosecutors and investigators that handle elder abuse cases.  Several years ago, the Elder Abuse Unit was created because of the large percentage of Rhode Islanders who were age 60 and over. The special needs of the older victims and the fact that elder abuse, neglect and exploitation crosses all racial, socio-economic, gender and geographic lines made the need for a special unit apparent.  Coupled with this fact that this age group is the State’s fastest growing demographic, crimes against older persons often times go unreported, presenting high temptation and low risk for prosecution.

In Rhode Island, there is a mandatory duty of all citizens to report a suspicion of elder abuse and/or elder financial exploitation. To report elder physical abuse and/or elder financial abuse, contact your local police, Rhode Island State Police or the Rhode Island Division of Elderly Affairs at (401) 462-3000 or dea.ri.gov.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12 is a Pawtucket writer covering aging, health care and medical issues.  He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com or at 401 742-4372.

 

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.

 

It Takes a “Village” to Organize an Arts Festival

Published in Pawtucket Times, August 30, 2013

Years ago, the First Lady of the United States, Hillary Rodham Clinton, wrote a book It Takes a Village, attributing the title to an old African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.” The book details the impact individuals and groups outside the family make on meeting a child’s needs.

City government does not always have the financial means or resources to organize large community gatherings, successfully. Just as it takes a “Village” to assist parents in raising their children, it takes the commitment of dedicated community volunteers in a “Village,” that is Pawtucket, to work closely with City government to organize and host one of the largest arts and cultural festivals in the Ocean State, maybe even in New England: the Pawtucket Arts Festival (PAF).

The upcoming month-long PAF, organized by Pawtucket’s Department of Planning and Redevelopment, leading cultural and service organizations, as well as community volunteers, is scheduled for September 6 to September 29, at various locations throughout the City.

With more than two centuries of story to showcase, the PAF turns the spotlight on glorious Slater Memorial Park, the Blackstone River and the riverfront, and the city’s contemporary blue-collar urban core, with its restored mills and commercial spaces that now house visual arts and recording studios, galleries and fabricators, as well as two of New England’s most highly regarded theatres, the Gamm Theatre and Mixed Magic Theatre.

The City’s arts festival celebrates a legacy of creativity and innovation that dates way back to 1790, when a young textile wizard from England, Samuel Slater, made the Blackstone River Valley and the City of Pawtucket the Birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution and the place where artisans and craftsmen first gathered.

Now in its 15th year, the Pawtucket Arts Festival is overseen by Pawtucket resident John Baxter. PAF Chairman Baxter, a senior level staffer for the Rhode Island Senate, and his executive committee of 16 volunteers are about ready to see the fruit of their year-long planning.

Performing Arts Chair Mary Lee Partington says, “The performing arts focus of the Pawtucket Arts Festival is aimed at interpreting the region’s innovative and entrepreneurial energy through the state’s resident artists…many of whom perform and introduce new and original material during the month-long Festival.”

Partington notes the range of offerings from classical, traditional, or folk music and dance to Aurea, Opera Providence, and jazz artists Greg Abate and Duke Robillard and their ensembles, as well as theatre at The Gamm and performance art from TEN31 Productions. Pawtucket’s widely-acclaimed arts festival reaches across geography and genres to show the performing arts at work in Rhode Island and among our national and international touring artists.

“We tell Rhode Island’s story through the arts…here, there, and everywhere,” stresses Partington.

Here are some of the major events of the first weekend of the upcoming Pawtucket Arts Festival.

Celebration in the Streets

Next Friday, on September 6, PAF organizers kick off the first ever Blackstone River Party: Taste of the Valley, brought to you by Schofield Printing. The event, drawing thousands to the grounds of the historic Slater Mill Museum and the blocked off Roosevelt Ave., is scheduled from 6:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. The City’s largest downtown block party offers food and dessert samplings served by some of the finest restaurants in Pawtucket and the surrounding Blackstone Valley communities. A cash bar is available.

Crowds will gather on the large dance floor under a huge white tent as Rhode Island’s high energy Zydeco band, Slippery Sneakers, begins playing at 6:00 p.m., concluding at 8:00 p.m. After a brief break, headliner Andre Thierry and Zydeco Magic take the stage from 8:30 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. Admission is $10. Children under 12 are admitted free. The event is “Rain or Shine.” Advance tickets can be purchased at the City Visitor Center.

On September 7-8, the performing arts share the stage with visual arts and fine craft when more than 50 artists show their one-of-a-kind work at Arts Marketplace: Pawtucket (www.artsmarketplacepawtucket.com), from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., in the Pawtucket Armory Center for the Arts. Surrounding the 119 year old historic armory, XOS-Exchange Open Studios (www.xospawtucket.com), from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., brings art buyers into the studios of more than 60 artists located throughout four renovated mills in the City’s Pawtucket Amory District.

According to Joan Hausrath, a retired college professor and artist at Riverfront Lofts across from Pawtucket City Hall, XOS Exchange Street Open Studios attracted more than 2000 people last year for its 2-day inaugural event. One of the benefits of having open studios in her neighborhood is that visitors can easily walk from one mill to another – all located within one block of each other, and they are just yards from Exit 29 off I-95, the artist noted.

Hausrath and her fellow organizers of this event invited artists from the other mills in Pawtucket to participate as guest artists, to increase the concentration of talent within the grand, historic structures that provide creative home and work space for these gifted citizens of the arts.

Jam Packed First Weekend

Also, on September 7 other festivities include The Dragon Boat Races and Taiwan Day Festival on the Blackstone River, from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. at School Street Pier (presented by Schofield Printing); the Lighting of Pawtucket’s New Bridge (4:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m.); Slater Mill Museum’s new In-OVATION Festival featuring the Duke Robillard Jazz Trio and the Matt Macaulay Trio and more (12:00 noon to 3:00 p.m.). Meanwhile, Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operetta, The Pirates of Penzance, will be offered by Opera Providence, from 6:30 p.m. to 9:00 p.m., at the City Visitor Center, and The Samaritans of RI, from 3:30 p.m. to 6:00 p.m., showcases their intimate fine arts gallery and In-OVATION Festival After Party with Unforgettable September Music at Forget-Me-Not Gallery on Park Place.

Finally, among the new PAF events this year is the Pawtucket Rotary Club’s Food Trucks on the Blackstone (www.blackstonefoodtrucks.com), offering a food fair (and beer tent) on September 7-8, from 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., near Pawtucket City Hall, to hungry families, art shoppers, and audience attending Slater Mill Museum free musical performances.

On September 8, Slater Mill’s Labor, Ethnic and Heritage Festival, presents one of the Ocean State’s longest-running folk music and heritage-arts festivals. Initiated in the late 1980’s in partnership with the Rhode Island labor community and affiliated unions, the L&E Festival celebrated 25 years in 2012. The Sunday event, from 12:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m., shines its spotlight on folk and ethnic music, the artisans of the Community Guilds Studio and gifted regional artists and artisans.

Creative Co-advisor to In-OVATION FESTIVAL and the Labor & Ethnic Heritage Festival at Slater Mill is Rhode Island Music Hall of Fame inductee Ken Lyon, a blues and folk music legend who helped design this year’s music festivals, who lists the L&E lineup with members of Magnolia, The Greg Abate Jazz Quartet, The Eastern Medicine Singers, Joyce Katzberg & Jimmy Warren, Bill Petterson, The Zimmermen (presenting the repertoire of Bob Dylan) and more.

Admission for the folk music festival on the grounds of Slater Mill is free. Admission prices for Slater Mill tours are listed at http://www.slatermill.org. Special preview tours “RI Labor History 1790-1830” by Slater Mill interpretive guide Joey L DeFrancesco of “Joey Quits” You Tube fame, will be offered.

Logistics Co-Chair Paul Audette, a semi-retired businessman who serves as a volunteer festival organizer, has seen the Arts Festival “grow up” and offer more sophisticated artistic presentations. “Programming reaches out to more people in a larger geographic area to showcase Pawtucket and the Blackstone Valley region positively,” he observes, noting that this year’s events are more varied and offer something for everyone.

Adds Chairman Baxter, “I continue to be amazed that the Pawtucket Arts Festival, with its limited financial and manpower resources, manages to produce this remarkable event again and again.” Community volunteers and arts and cultural organizations are truly the life-blood of the City’s largest festival, Baxter observes. “Without the incredible support of the City Administration, the local business community, the cultural enterprise community, and these volunteers, the Pawtucket Arts Festival would never happen.”

Keeping Kristine’s Vision Alive

In 1999, Kristine Kilmartin, newly married to her husband Pawtucket Rep. Peter Kilmartin, had lived in Pawtucket for only a few months. The Smithfield native was driving through Slater Memorial Park in early January with her new husband when she asked why the City didn’t take more advantage of its green space. Kristine wondered why the City couldn’t do something like the Scituate Arts Festival in the City’s 209-acre park. The Kilmartin’s turned to Mayor James E. Doyle with the idea of creating an arts
festival. After a month of meetings, discussion, and planning, the City created an 18-person volunteer committee to begin planning the first Arts Festival.

Fifteen years later, volunteers from the community have kept Kristine’s vision alive, annually bringing new life in September to the City’s downtown and to its largest municipal park.

For more details and updated information on the 2013 Pawtucket Arts Festival, go to http://www.pawtucketartsfestival.org.

Herb Weiss, Leadership RI ’12, is a Pawtucket writer who covers aging, health care, and medical issues. As Economic & Cultural Affairs Officer for the City of Pawtucket, he provides staff support to the Pawtucket Arts Festival organizers.