Report Details Ways to Improve Guardianship System in US

Published in the Woonsocket Call on December 2, 2018

Just days ago, the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging held an afternoon hearing in the Senate Dirksen Office Building to alert Congress to appalling stories gathered across the nation regarding abusive guardianships that are taking advantage of vulnerable older adults. At this hearing the Senate Aging Committee also released its annual report that takes a look at an examination of guardianship arrangements including research and recommendations on ways to improve the nation’s guardianship system.

Although guardians provide a valuable and essential service for many older Americans, from deciding where an individual will live and when to seek medical care to choosing if family members are allowed to visit and how to spend retirement savings, unscrupulous guardians acting with little oversight have used legal guardianship proceedings to obtain control of vulnerable individuals and have then used that power to liquidate assets and life-time savings for their own personal gains.

Last April, the Committee held the first hearing in a two-part series this year on the abuse of power and exploitation of older Americans by guardians. The Committee also held a hearing on guardianship in 2016. The Nov. 28th hearing is a continuation of the Committee’s longstanding commitment to bring awareness and prevention to the financial exploitation of older Americans.

Putting the Spotlight on Unscrupulous Guardians

U.S. Senators Susan Collins (R-ME) and Bob Casey (D-PA), the Chairman and Ranking Member of the Senate Aging Committee, put the legislative spotlight on this important legal issue and released the Committee’s 34-page report at the Wednesday hearing titled, “Ensuring Trust: Strengthening State Efforts to Overhaul the Guardianship Process and Protect Older Americans.”

The released Senate Aging Committee report is the culmination of a year-long examination of ways in which the legal system can be improved to better protect individuals subject to these and similar arrangements from abuse, neglect, and exploitation. It addresses three key areas – the importance of guardianship oversight, alternatives to guardianship, and the need for improved data and it makes 13 recommendations.

“An estimated 1.3 million adults are under the care of guardians – family members or professionals – who control approximately $50 billion of their assets,” said Collins, in her opening statement. “Guardianship is a legal relationship created by a court that is designed to protect those with diminished or lost capacity. We found, however, that in many cases, the system lacks basic protections leaving the most vulnerable Americans at risk of exploitation.,” she said.

“While most guardians act in the best interest of the individual they care for, far too often, we have heard horror stories of guardians who have abused, neglected or exploited a person subject to guardianship. As our report notes, there are persistent and widespread problems with guardianship arrangements nationwide,” says Casey in his opening statement. “This is why Senator Collins and I introduced the Guardianship Accountability Act to begin reforming the guardianship system to ensure the protection of seniors under guardian care from losing their rights, savings or possessions because a guardian abused their power,” he said.

Fixing the Nation’s Guardianship System

The Senate Aging Committee took testimony from four guardianship experts who gave their thoughts as to how to improve the system.

Cate Boyko, Senior Court Research Associate at the National Center for State Courts (NCSC), explained that the state court data it collected revealed that none of the states was able to fully report all the information on guardianships they requested. They found that the most serious issues involved local court authority, lack of standardized reporting, and limited technology.

Bethany Hamm, Acting Commissioner of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, provided background information on the state’s Adult Protect Services and public guardianship program. Hamm discussed Maine Uniform Probate Code (UPC) enacted during the state’s last legislative session. The Maine UPC takes effect in July of next year and requires private guardians to report annually on the condition of the adult and account for money and other property in guardians’ possession or subject to guardians’ control.

Karen Buck, Executive Director at the Pennsylvania-based SeniorLAW Center, a nonprofit legal services agency, described the work her organization does to tackle issues such as guardianship through free legal representation, education, and advocacy for older Americans in Pennsylvania. She argued that guardianship remains an “important tool” to provide care for vulnerable seniors and therefore merits attention and reform.

Finally, Barbara Buckley, Executive Director at the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada, described the steps that her state has taken since 2014 to better protect individuals under guardianship. One year later, the Nevada Supreme Court created a Guardianship Commission to examine the guardianship system and recommend reforms., she said, detailing three significant areas of reform implemented in Nevada: the right to counsel, the protected person’s Bill of Rights and other statutory reforms, and the establishment of the Guardianship Compliance Office.

As a result of the Senate Aging Committee’s work to examine issues surrounding guardianship, Collins and Casey announced at this hearing that they were introducing the Guardianship Accountability Act. This bipartisan legislation would promote information sharing among courts and local organizations as well as state and federal agencies, encourage the use of background checks and less restrictive alternatives to guardianship, and expand the availability of federal grants to improve the guardianship system.

Congress Must Act

One of the report’s recommended actions to strengthen guardianship arrangements is for courts to conduct criminal background checks on ALL prospective guardians. To aid states in this pursuit, Casey and Collin’s legislation, the “Guardianship Accountability Act,” promotes oversight of guardianship arrangements and encourages information sharing among government agencies and with other relevant organizations. This bill would also allow states to fund data collection on guardianship arrangements and conduct background checks on guardians.

According to the National Center for State Courts, there are approximately 1.3 million adults and an estimated $50 billion of assets under guardianship arrangements. State courts are tasked with monitoring guardianships in order to protect individuals subject to guardianship from abuse, neglect and exploitation. Despite this responsibility, few states are able to provide courts with adequate resources to monitor guardianships effectively and hold guardians accountable.

When the new Congress begins, hopefully this legislation will sail through both chambers of Congress and be quickly signed by President Donald Trump. We will see…

To get the Senate Aging Committee’s guardianship report, go to http://www.aging.senate.
gov/imo/media/doc/Guardianship%20Report.pdf.

For a copy of the Guardianship Accountability Act, go to http://www.aging.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/
Guardianship%20Accountability%20Act%20of%202018.pdf.

To watch the one hour and forty-seven-minute Senate Aging Committee hearing, go to http://www.aging.senate.
gov/hearings/ensuring-trust-strengthening-state-efforts-to-overhaul-the-guardianship-process-and-protect-older-americans.

Advertisements

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.”