Being Vigilant Keeps Phone Scammers Away

Published in Pawtucket Times, July 18, 2014

When 81-year-old Cincinnati resident Roger W. answered a call in December, he thought it was his grandson on the other end of the phone. The young voice said, Grandpa, this you’re your favorite grandson,” he remembered, replying, “I have six grandsons and they are all my favorites.” Claiming to be the oldest, the “grandson” said he had been arrested for speeding and drug possession and urgently needed money for bail. He then turned the call over to a person claiming to be a police officer. Convinced their eldest grandson needed help, Roger W. and his wife headed to a local retail store to purchase a money-order card to cover the cost of bail.

After sending a total of $7,000 to the supposed police officer, the elderly couple soon discovered they had been conned out of their hard-earned money after reaching their real grandson on his cell phone. They are among an untold number of older Americans who have fallen victim to a commonly used scam known as the “grandparent scam” that experts say is again making a comeback across the nation.

Senate Aging Hearing Puts the Spotlight on Phone Scams

Roger W., who has requested anonymity to avoid becoming a target of other con-artists, testified two days ago at a hearing of the U..S. Senate Special Committee on Aging held at the Senate Dirksen building. The hearing examined the recent rise in imposter scams, particularly the grandparent scam.

Along with Roger W., witnesses at the July 16th hearing included officials from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the United States Telecom Association, who discussed potential solutions to protecting consumers and curbing phone scams.

According to the FTC, Americans lost more than $73 million to impostor scams in 2013. While the federal agency admits the figure is under reported, accounting for only a fraction of the problem because most victims fail to report the crime, instances of imposter scams have doubled between 2009 and 2013. Senators Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Susan Collins (R-ME), the committee’s chairman and ranking member, called for this hearing after receiving a large number of complaints from victims through the committee’s fraud hotline. The two lawmakers said they’re hoping the hearing will help identify potential solutions to help law enforcement to better detect and prosecute such crimes, as well as encourage retailers and phone companies to do their part to protect consumers.

Phone Scams Commonly Reported in Rhode Island

According to the Rhode Island Office of the Attorney General, the Ocean State is not immune to the financial scam, described at the recent Senate Aging hearing by Roger W. There are slight variations of the “grandparent scam” story where con artists pretend to be a family member and claim they need money to fix a car, get out of jail or leave a foreign country. They will beg you to wire money right away and keep the information confidential. In some cases, the scammers even know the names of family members. In other instances, the person on the other end of the line may pretend to be a police officer or friend calling on behalf of the grandchild.

In 2013, the Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Unit responded to 6,229 telephone calls, 1,144 written complaints, 1,534 email inquiries and 74 walk-ins. While the Consumer Protection Unit does not keep statistics on each scam that is reported, the grandparent scam is no stranger to the employees

“We see a spike in these types of scams during times when a grandchild might be on vacation, like school break or summers, making the story more believable to the person on the other end of the phone,” said Attorney General Peter Kilmartin. The Attorney General’s Office includes a Consumer Protection Unit, which, among other responsibilities, warns the public about such scams and educates consumers on how to protect themselves from being a victim of a scam, he says.

Kilmartin observes that “Con artists have turned fraud into a multi-billion dollar business. Each year, thousands of consumers lose anywhere from a few dollars to their life savings to scams. Once the money is gone, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to recover your funds,” he notes.

There are big hurdles law enforcement must overcome to catch the scammer who is behind these cons. If a scam originated out of the state, or even out of the country, it is often beyond the reach of local or state law enforcement officials, adds Kilmartin. . Complicating matters is technology, he says, noting that long gone are the days when people’s locations could be easily identified and tracked by their phone number. With cellular technology, pre-paid cell phones and “spoofing” apps, a person may be running their con from a foreign country while your caller ID shows an in-state phone number, he says.

AG’s Top Priority to Protect Consumers Against Fraud and Scams

“As Attorney General, it is one of my top priorities to protect all consumers from fraud and scams. Consumer protection is largely self protection. Becoming a smart and savvy consumer does not mean changing your daily routine — it means becoming more aware of how to avoid becoming a victim. As the saying goes, knowledge is power. It is  my belief that consumers and businesses can better protect themselves and their assets if they are aware of their rights and are aware of the fraudulent or deceptive practices scammers use,” said Kilmartin.

Tammy Miller, Director of the Consumer Protection Unit, said the reason that scamming older persons is so prevalent is because it works. “Sadly, con artists prey on older people because they tend to be more trusting. Once the money is wired, it’s gone forever, and it’s only then people realize they have been a victim of the scam. Because these outfits operate outside the state, and often outside the country, there is little law enforcement can do to track them down,” she says.

According to Miller, Attorney General Kilmartin has made educating consumers a priority. As such, members of the Consumer Protection Unit provide approximately 150 outreach presentations each year to senior centers, community groups and organizations throughout the state in an effort to educate and protect Rhode Islanders from scam artists.

In addition, several consumer alerts/advisories are issued annually. The advisories cover a wide range of topics such as fake invoices, phishing scams, a fake jury duty and arrest scam, a “car wrap” scam, possible scams related to sporting events, consumer settlements and holiday shopping tips.

“Although it is very difficult to measure, I believe our consumer outreach program has made a difference in lowering the number of victims of scams in Rhode Island. A good indicator is the increase in phone calls we receive from consumers alerting us whenever a scam pops up, which gives us a chance to get ahead of it, issue an alert and warn other consumers. I think that’s a positive sign that we are making headway and creating confident and well informed consumers,” said Miller.

Miller says that Kilmartin has done a terrific job as Attorney General in making the public aware of scams that are going around the state, which reduces the chances of someone else becoming a victim.”

Quick Actions to Protect Yourself Against Phone Scams

So, what do you do if you receive a phone call from someone pretending to be a family member in need? Miller recommends that you first verify that it is your grandchild. Always ask for a phone number of the person on the other line. Before calling them back or wiring them money, contact the family member directly. If you cannot get a hold of them, contact their parents or another family member to confirm their location.

Miller warns older persons to resist the intense pressure to send money quickly and secretly. Refuse to send money through wire transfer or overnight delivery. After you’ve thwarted the scam, Tammy Miller suggests you let your local police and the Consumer Protection Unit know about the call. Alerting the Attorney General’s Office will allow them to alert the public that the scam is making the rounds and what to be on the lookout for.

To report a consumer-related issue, to speak with a consumer protection specialist at the Attorney General’s Office, or to schedule a consumer protection specialist to speak before your community group or organization, call 401-274-4400, send an email at contactus@riag.ri.gov, or visit http://www.riag.ri.gov.

To watch the Senate U.S. Special Committee on Aging hearing and to access witness testimony, go to http://www.aging.senate.gov/hearings/-hanging-up-on-phone-scams-progress-and-potential-solutions-to-this-scourge.

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

 

 

Advertisements

The Best of…Nationally Elder Abuse and Neglect on the Increase

           Published June 25, 2001, Pawtucket Times

           Although numerous federal studies and Congressional hearings have put the public spotlight on elder abuse and neglect over the years, a Special Senate on Aging panel calls for the nation to get serious to tackle this all-to-common tragedy, called by some “the dark side” of aging. 

           “With the senior population skyrocketing, incidents of elder abuse will only continue to rise,” warned Democratic Chairman John Breaux of Louisianato his panel colleagues at the June 14th hearing.   At the hearing Senator Breaux took over the reins of the Aging  Committee from the former Chairman Republican Larry Craig ofIdaho, with the Senate majority tipping to the Democrats.  Initially it was Senator Senator Craig who had planned and put the hearing on the Senate schedule.      

           At the  hearing, Chairman Breaux estimated that more than 820,000 older and developmentally disabled individuals are subjected to abuse, neglect and exploitation.  Meanwhile, throughout  the hearing “Elder Abuse, Neglect, and Exploitation: A Hidden National Tragedy,” several witnesses testified that this number is too low because of underreporting and there are no universal definitions of what is elder abuse and neglect.  To combat abuse, Chairman Breaux and the witnesses called for more funding to be provided to adult protective services, better training for medical personnel to identify the problem early and more resources for caregivers to help them with their caregiving responsibilities.

            Despite the fact that many believe that elder abuse and neglect take place in nursing facilities and assisted living facilities, most often times it occurs in a person’s home where nearly 95 percent of all domestic long-term care is being informally provided by family members and community-based caregivers, noted Chairman Breaux.

            Summing up testimony from hearing witnesses, a Senate Aging Committee staffer told The Times that elder abuse can be caused by social, medical and legal factors.

             “We are expecting families to provide a large amount of long-term care and we give only minimal assistance and support to them,” the Senate staffer said.  To deal with social factors causing elder abuse and neglect, “we need more respite care and training in care giving skills.” he added.   

             As to medical factors, the Senate staffer added, “it is crucial that better training be made available to physicians and nurses to recognize the early signs of elder abuse itself.”  If this occurred there could be much quicker interventions, he said.  

             Finally, legal factors, specifically the lack of funding for elder protective services, reduce the effectiveness of prosecuting persons who financially exploit elderly.

                 So what’s happening inRhode Island?

             According to Wayne Farrington, Chief of Facilities Regulation,Rhode Island’s Department of Health, elder abuse is on the increase in nursing facilities and assisted living facilities across the state.  “This year we have had about a 15 percent increase in reports of abuse, neglect or mistreatment,” he says.  Farrington speculates that the rise in reporting is a result of a better informed public who know where to register complaints combined with increased publicity over the staffing shortage in nursing facilities and community-based provider agencies.  The shortage of nursing assistants, who provide most of the direct patient care, along with nurses oftentimes results in the facility not being able to provide the needed care.

            “Because neglect abuse and mistreatment are criminal matters they are turned over to the Rhode Island Office of the Attorney General for further investigation and prosecution, Farrington says.  “If we find that facilities have violated regulations that have resulted in the abuse or neglect we will cite the facility with deficiencies that may be tied to civil monetary penalties.

           According to Medicaid Fraud Unit Chief Bruce Todesco, of the state’s Office of the Attorney General, there are really no accurate statistics or numbers that tell the incidence of elder abuse and neglect inRhode Island.  “A lot of information comes from different sources,” he said, stressing that it would take a lot of work to pull together meaningful statistics.

           Adds, Genevieve  Allair-Johnson, Special Assistant Attorney General who serves as Elderly Affairs Liaison for Criminal Division, in the Attorney General’s Office, elder abuse and neglect cases may be under reported because the elderly person does not want to proceed against the child and competency issues often times come into play.

           “We work closely with the Department of Elderly Affairs and local police departments and provide them with legal assistance in their investigations, Allair-Johnson says.  “When discussing a case sometimes it comes up that additional inquiries will have to be made to bring about charges.”   

            Allair-Johnson states “Many times criminal charges will not be filed in cases because high standards must be met.”   Rather than filing criminal charges for elder abuse or neglect other options are in place like removing the elderly person from a home, or seeking a court ordered guardianship.

          Over the last few years the Office of the Attorney General has developed effective partnerships with the local police departments, Department of Elderly Affairs, and the Alliancefor Better Long-Term Care,” Allair-Johnson says.  “There are a host of state agencies and resources that are beginning to pull together to resolve this elder abuse issue. We’re going in the right direction.”

          To obtain materials on elder abuse, including the pamphlet “The Elder Victims Guide to the Criminal Justice System,” or to seek information about consumer issues or to report elder abuse, neglect and financial exploitation, call the Attorney General’s Senior Line at 888-621-1112. 

          If one has a reasonable knowledge and suspects an elderly person has been abused neglected or mistreated in a nursing facility call the Division of Facility Regulation at 222-2566.

          Herbert P. Weiss is a Pawtucket, Rhode Island-based  free lance writer covering aging, health and medical care issues,  This article appeared in the June 25, 2001 in the Pawtucket Times.   He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.