Senate Aging Panel Releases its 2018 Fraud Book

Published in Woonsocket Call on April 1, 2018

In early March, the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging again put the spotlight on common fraud schemes directed at America’s seniors at a panel hearing, “Stopping Senior Scams.” At the Senate panel hearing, held in Dirksen Senate Office Building 562, the Committee officially released its 2018 Fraud Book detailing the Top 10 scams reported to its Fraud Hotline last year. In 2017, the Committee’s Fraud Hotline received more than 1,400 complaints of frauds targeting seniors around the country, clearly revealing the extent of this epidemic.

Last year, the most prevalent scam reported to the Committee’s Hotline, detailed in the Senate Aging Committee’s 56-page 2018 Fraud Book, was the IRS Impersonation Scam in which con artists call, pretending to be IRS representatives, to collect payment of taxes and threaten arrest if payment is not immediately made by phone (During tax filing season, seniors and others should be on high alert for scam artists claiming to be the IRS).

The March 7th hearing was the third hearing this Congress—and the 12th in the past three years—that the Senate Aging Committee has held examining scams affecting older Americans. These hearings c=examined notoriously widespread scams including the IRS imposter scams, lottery and sweepstakes scams, computer tech support scams, grandparent scams, elder financial exploitation, and identity theft.

“This Committee’s dedication to fighting fraud against older Americans is raising awareness and it is making a real difference,” said Chairman Susan Collins (R-ME), of the Senate Aging Committee, in her opening remarks. “Just two weeks ago, the Department of Justice announced it has charged more than 250 people with stealing more than half billion dollars from more than a million Americans. This is the largest ever law enforcement action to protect our nation’s seniors from fraud,” noted Collins.

Seniors Lose Billions in Exploitation Schemes and Scams

Collins called the “stakes extremely high” in fighting against the skyrocketing incidence of senior fraud, noting that according to the Government Accountability Office, older American’s lose a staggering $2.9 billion a year to an ever-growing array of financial exploitation schemes and scams.

Ranking Member, Bob Casey (D-PA), called for more aggressive action to be taken “to ensure that not one more senior loses another penny to a con artist.” The Pennsylvania Senator called for working more closely with businesses to create “another line of defense to help prevent assets from ever leaving the hands of unsuspecting victims.”

Witnesses Stephen and Rita Shiman from Saco, ME, came to share and educate others as to how they fell victim to a grandparent scam. During his testimony, Shiman acknowledged the special bond between grandparents and their grandchildren. “The scammers knew this well and took full advantage of it with my wife and myself. They knew that when a grandchild is in trouble, grandparents go all out to help,” he said.

With over 20 years working as a lead volunteer with Pennsylvania, chairing the nonprofits Consumer Issue Task Force, Witness Mary Bach explained how her 15-member task force team from across the commonwealth keep residents of all ages educated about current scams sweeping the state. She stated, “[w]e know that education is power, and when someone hears the specifics of a scam they are much less likely to be victimized. If you can spot a scam, you can stop a scam!”

Witness Doug Shadel, State Director of AARP Washington State. testified about the current state of fraud targeting seniors and outlined that impostor scams are still the most prevalent.” In the new age of technology, it is easier than ever for scammers to be someone they are not,” he said, noting that “combining this ability with a tactic to incite fear or excitement upon their victim, paints a very convincing picture, one that has enabled scammers to easily take many seniors of their hard-earned savings.”

Finally, Witness Adrienne Omansky of Los Angeles, CA, described how she formed the Stop Senior Scams Acting Program in 2009 after learning from students in her commercial acting class about fraud they had experienced. Over the past few years, this volunteer group has grown significantly and now performs in about 30 venues each year, ranging from small veteran’s halls to a large convention center. As part of her testimony, Omansky played a few clips of the Public Service Announcements her group has recorded and shared several of the lessons the members of her acting program have learned through their own performances, including that seniors are often more comfortable learning about scams from their peers.

AARP Fights Against Senior Fraud

AARP recognized early on that older Americans are extremely vulnerable to fraud and identity theft,” says AARP Rhode Island State Director Kathleen Connell. “It’s a multi-billion-dollar problem and getting worse. That’s why our organization has made a significant investment in public outreach as well as a free alert system available to our members as well as the general public.

“One aspect of prevention that has been our focus is explaining to people how con artists operate. We hired Frank Abagnale, the real-life former con man depicted in the movie Catch Me If You Can, as a national spokesman. His job is to help people spot a con. He goes way beyond “if it’s too good to be true.” Abagnale explains the psychological triggers that con artists employ to snag even the seemingly brightest and most cautious victims. This is laid out in our free publication The Con Artists Playbook. It is a hand out at events and presentations we’ve been conducting across the state the past three years.

“The AARP Fraud Watch Network is a free service,” Connell continued. “Sign up and you will receive email alerts on the latest scams. One of our Fraud Watch presenters is fond of saying that when you hear about a scam on the TV news it is natural to say, ’I’d never fall for that. ’Maybe, he tells audiences, it’s only because you were just warned. That’s the thing. It’s the new scam that you haven’t heard about that is especially dangerous. In addition to the alerts, you can report scans so the word spreads as new cons make the rounds. There’s also a national fraud hotline (877-908-3360) with specialists who take on any questions. And an online map allows you identify scams reported in your area. We urge everyone to check out the Web site (www. fraudwatchnetwork.org) to learn more.”

For a copy of the 2018 Senate Aging Committee Fraud Book, go to http://www.aging.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Fraud%20Book%202018%20FINAL.pdf.

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GAO Study Reports New Trends Push Older Women into Poverty

Published in Pawtucket Times, March 7, 2014

Following on the heels of a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released last week on March 5, the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging held a hearing to put a Congressional spotlight on the alarming increase of older Americans becoming impoverished.  The GAO policy analysts concluded that a growing number of the nation’s elderly, especially women and minorities, could fall into poverty due to lower incomes associated with declining marriage rates and the higher living expenses that individuals bear.

As many as 48 percent of older Americans live in or on the edge of poverty. “While many gains have been made over the years to reduce poverty, too many seniors still can’t afford basic necessities such as food, shelter and medicines,” said Aging Committee Chairman Bill Nelson (D-FL).

Senate Aging Committee Looks at Income Security for Elders

Policy experts told Senate lawmakers on Wednesday that millions of seniors have been spared from abject poverty thanks to federal programs such as Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, SSI, and food stamps.  The testimony contrasted with the picture painted by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) earlier this week, who produced a report that labeled the federal government’s five-decade long war on poverty a failure.

Appearing before the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging, Patricia Neuman, a senior vice president at the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, stressed the importance of federal anti-poverty programs.

“Between 1966 and 2011, the share of seniors living in poverty fell from more than 28 percent to about 9 percent, with the steepest drop occurring in the decade immediately following the start of the Medicare program,” said Neuman.  “The introduction of Medicare, coupled with Social Security, played a key role in lifting seniors out of poverty.”

Neuman’s remarks were echoed by Joan Entmacher of the National Women’s Law              Center, who credited food stamps, unemployment insurance and Meals on Wheels, along with Social Security, for dramatically reducing poverty among seniors.  The report was highly critical of many programs designed to help the poor and elderly saying they contribute to the “poverty trap.”  Ryan and other House lawmakers have long proposed capping federal spending and turning Medicaid, food stamps and a host of other programs for the poor into state block grants.

Older Women and Pension Benefits

GAO’s Barbara Bovbjerg also brought her views to the Senate Select Committee on Aging hearing. Bovbjerg, Managing Director of Education, Workforce, and Income Security Issues, testified that the trends in marriage, work, and pension benefits have impacted the retirement incomes of older Americans.

Over the last five decades the composition of the American household has changed dramatically, stated Bovbjerg, noting that the proportion of unmarried individuals has increased steadily as couples have chosen to marry at ever-later ages and as divorce rates have risen.  “This is important because Social Security is not only available to workers but also to spouses and survivors.  The decline in marriage and the concomitant rise in single parenthood have been more pronounced among low-income, less educated individuals and some minorities,” she says.

As marriage and workforce patterns changed, so has the nation’s retirement system, adds Bovbjerg.  Since 1990, employers have increasingly turned away from traditional defined benefit pensions to defined contribution plans, such as 401(k)s, she says, this ultimately shifting risk to individual employees and making it more likely they will receive lump sum benefits rather than annuities.

These trends have affected retirement incomes, especially for women and minorities, says Bovbjerg, that is fewer women today receive Social Security spousal and survivor benefits than in the past; most qualify for benefits on their own work history. While this shift may be positive, especially for those women with higher incomes, unmarried elderly women with low levels of lifetime earnings are expected to get less from Social Security than any other demographic group.

According to Bovbjerg, these trends have also affected household savings Married households are more likely to have retirement savings, but the majority of single-headed households have none. Obviously, single parents in particular tend to have fewer resources available to save for retirement during their working years.  With Defined Contribution pension plans becoming the norm for most, and with significant numbers not having these benefits, older Americans may well have to rely increasingly on Social Security as their primary or perhaps only source of retirement income.

Inside the Ocean State

Although the GAO report findings acknowledge a gender-based wage gap that pushes older woman into poverty, Maureen Maigret, policy consultant for the Senior Agenda Coalition of Rhode Island and Coordinator of the Rhode Island Older Woman’s Policy Group, observes that this inequity has been around since the 1970s when she chaired a legislative commission studying pay equity. “Progress in closing the gender wage gap has stagnated since 2000 with the wage ratio hovering around 76.5 percent”, she says.

GAO’s recent findings on gender based differences in poverty rates are consistent with what Maigret found researching the issue for the Women’s Fund of Rhode Island in 2010.  She found that some of the differences in the Ocean State can be attributed to the fact that older women are far less likely to be married than older men.  Almost three times as many older women are widowed when compared to men.

Maigret says that her research revealed that older women in Rhode Island are also less likely to live in family households and almost twice as likely as older men to live alone. Of those older women living alone or with non family members an estimated one out of five was living in poverty. For Rhode Island older women in non-family households living alone, estimated median income in 2009 was 85% that of male non-family householders living alone ($18,375 vs. $21,540).

Finally, Maigret’s report findings indicate that around 11.3 percent of older Rhode Island women were living below the federal poverty level as compared to 7.3 percent of older men in the state. Older women’s average Social Security benefit was almost 30 percent less than that of older men and their earnings were only 58 percent that of older men’s earnings.

             There is no getting around peoples’ fears about outliving their savings becoming a reality if they live long enough,” said AARP Rhode Island State Director Kathleen Connell. “One thing that the latest statistics reveals [including the GAO report] is the critical role Social Security plays when it comes to the ability of many seniors to meet monthly expenses. Social Security keeps about 38 percent of  Rhode Islanders age 65 and older out of poverty, according to a new study from the AARP Public Policy Institute.”

“Nationally, figures jump off the page,” Connell added. “Without Social Security benefits, 44.4 percent of elderly Americans would have incomes below the official poverty line; all else being equal; with Social Security benefits, only 9.1 percent do, she says, noting that these benefits lift 15.3 million elderly Americans — including 9.0 million women — above the poverty line.”

“Just over 50 percent of Rhode Islanders age 65 and older rely on Social Security for at least half of their family income—and nearly 24 percent rely on Social Security for 90 percent of their family income” states Connell.

             “Seniors trying to meet the increasing cost of utilities, prescription drugs and groceries would be desperate without monthly Social Security benefits they worked hard for and planned on. As buying power decreases, protecting Social Security becomes more important than ever. Older people know this; younger people should be aware of it and become more active in saving for retirement. Members of Congress need to remain aware of this as well,” adds Connell.

Kate Brewster, Executive Director of Rhode Island’s The Economic Progress Institute, agrees with Maigret that older women in Rhode Island are already at greater risk of poverty and economic security than older men.   “This [GAO] report highlights several trends that make it increasingly important to improve women’s earnings today so that they are economically secure in retirement.  Among the “policy to-do list” is shrinking the wage gap, eliminating occupational segregation, and raising the minimum wage. State and federal proposals to increase the minimum wage to $10.10 would benefit more women than men, demonstrating the importance of this debate to women’s economic security today and tomorrow.”

House Speaker Gordon Fox is proud that the General Assembly in the last two legislation sessions voted to raise minimum wage to its current level of $8 per hour.  That puts Rhode Island at the same level as neighboring Massachusetts, and we far surpass the federal minimum wage of $7.25, he said.  He says he will carefully consider legislation that has been introduced to once again boost the minimum wage.

“Bridging this gap is not only the right thing to do to ensure that women are on the same financial footing as men, but it also makes economic sense”, says Rep. David N. Cicilline.  At the federal level, the  Democratic Congressman has supported the ‘When Women Succeed, America Succeeds’ economic agenda that would address issues like the minimum wage, paycheck fairness, and access to quality and affordable child care. “Tackling these issues is a step toward helping women save and earn a secure retirement, but we also have to ensure individuals have a safety net so they can live with dignity in their retirement years,” says Cicilline.

With Republican Congressman Ryan in a GOP-controlled House, captured by the Tea Party, leading the charge to dismantle the federal government’s 50 year war on poverty, the casualties of this ideological skirmish if he succeeds will be America’s seniors.  Cutting the safety net that these programs created will make economic insecurity in your older years a very common occurrence.

.             Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket writer who covers aging, health care and medical issues.  He can be contacted at hweissri@aol.com.