How to Keep Social Security off the GOP Chopping Block

Published in Woonsocket Call on April 4, 2015

One of the first political skirmishes to protect the nation’s Social Security program, 589 days before next year’s Presidential election, took place on March 24th in the U.S. Senate during budget debate. Leading the charge, Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse called up Senator Wyden (D-OR)’s budget amendment, requesting a Senate point of order against legislation to cut benefits, raise the retirement age, or privatize Social Security.

During the debate, “Social Security benefits are a solemn promise that our seniors have earned over a lifetime of work,” said Whitehouse, a founding member of the Senate’s Defend Social Security Caucus. “Sadly, Republicans have made it their mission for decades to dismantle that promise, attempting to turn it over to Wall Street and cut benefits through misguided ideas like the so-called ‘chained-CPI’,” he charges, noting that the Democratic sponsored amendment protects Social Security from right-wing attacks and ensure that retirees can count on their earned retirement benefits.

Republican Senator Enzi from Wyoming raised a point of order, calling Wyden’s amendment non germane to the budget resolution being debated. With the Democrats rallying 51 Senators to vote yea, 60 votes were required to wave Enzi’s point of order.

Although his attempts to protect Social Security in the Senate budget failed, Richard Davidson, Whitehouse’s Rhode Island Press Secretary, tells this columnist that the Senator plans to continue his efforts to keep Social Security off the GOP budget chopping block and from being privatized by supporting legislation like the Keeping Our Social Security Promises Act, legislation that would raise the income cap on the payroll tax to ensure the program’s solvency.

Davidson also states that the Social Security trust funds are projected to be fully solvent though 2033, and there’s no immediate funding crisis. But, in the longer run, Whitehouse believes the program must be bolstered by applying the payroll tax, which currently only applies to income up to $118,500, to higher levels of income, he says.

Protecting SSDI

One month before the Senate Budget debate, the GOP-controlled Senate Budget Committee put a spotlight at a hearing on the impending insolvency of the nation’s Social Security Disability Trust Fund (SSDI). The federal government has predicted that SSDI fund reserves will run low by the end of 2016, at which point millions of disabled beneficiaries could see up to a twenty percent cut in benefits.

At the Senate hearing, entitled “The coming crisis: Social Security Disability Trust Fund Insolvency,” Democrats called for an easy quick fix to the problem, specifically the shifting of a small percentage of the Social Security payroll tax from the retirement trust fund to the disability trust fund. No big deal, they say, because these transfers have occurred 11 times in the past with bipartisan support without political bickering. But, from this hearing it seemed clear that GOP Senators, who control the Senate, now see things differently and are threatening to block the infusion of funds to SSDI.

Approximately 10.2 million Americans received SSDI benefits in 2013, including roughly 42,000 Rhode Islanders. In order to qualify, beneficiaries are required to have worked in a job covered by Social Security, and must have been unable to work for a year or more due to a disability.

A February 9 posting on the Plum Line blog, penned by Greg Sargent for the Washington Post web site, takes a look a look at this SSDI entitlement debate.
In his opinion blog, Sargent says that GOP lawmakers claim that a “restricting a fund transfer is all about forcing a necessary discussion on how to improve Social Security’s long term finances, rather than merely “kicking the can down the road.” On the other hand, the Washington Post blogger believes Democrats see the Republicans as “exaggerating the sense of crisis to realize one of two political goals. Either they want to force immediate, and unnecessary, cuts – or they want to hold the disability fund hostage, in order to have another run at cuts to the broader program [Social Security].”

Gathering the Troops

At a March 23rd panel discussion hosted by the Providence-based Headquarters of Community Action Partnership , Whitehouse and Congressman Jim Langevin with Rhode Island Senator Donna Nesselbush, a disability attorney, along with SSDI recipients, disability groups, and the Social Security Administration, came to discuss the solvency of SSDI and its impact on the Ocean State. The lawmakers called for shifting Social Security payroll taxes to financially shore up the ailing SSDI program. Both lawmakers also supported a long-term solution, fully funding the federal retirement and disability programs by lifting the cap on the amount of income that is subject to the payroll taxes that fund the program.

“Right now, a millionaire hedge-fund manager pays the same amount of taxes into the Social Security system as someone who makes $118,500,” said Whitehouse. He called for “wealthiest Americans to pay a fair share into the program, so that it’s not funded disproportionately on the backs of middle-class workers.”

Congressman Langevin stressed “SSDI is not only a critical safety-net for disabled workers, their children and spouses, it is also a promise we make to everyone who pays into the Social Security trust fund that they won’t be impoverished if they are left with a debilitating condition or disability.”
Although Whitehouse’s efforts to protect the nation’s Social Security and Disability programs were derailed in the Senate Budget debate because of a GOP procedural call, it’s only the first of many political skirmishes to come. The upcoming 2016 Presidential elections will firmly put this entitlement issue on the nation’s radar screen, hopefully to address once and for all.

But, here’s my message to Whitehouse: Even if you lose a skirmish, or battle, you can always win the war. Keep pushing.

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

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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.