By: Sen. Susan M. Collins
With tax filing season upon us, criminals posing as officials from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) are continuing their attempts to defraud taxpayers, with seniors a particular target. As Chairman of the Senate Aging Committee, I recently chaired a hearing that shed new light on the IRS impersonation scam and other frauds being perpetrated against our citizens.
The devious nature of the IRS scam was described to the Committee in testimony by an 81-year-old Portland man who fell victim to these cruel fraudsters. Although health issues prevented Philip Hatch from travelling to Washington, D.C., he graciously and courageously provided a video in order to tell his important story and to warn others of the threat.
In his testimony, Mr. Hatch described how he received a call last summer from a con artist posing as an agent of the IRS who told him he owed back taxes and needed to pay immediately, using iTunes gift cards, or he would be arrested. Mr. Hatch was initially skeptical, but the 23-year Navy veteran was eventually conned into believing that the caller was an official government employee.
“Being in the military and working for the government – you know, when the government calls you up, you say ‘aye aye, sir. What do you need? Can I help you?’ Maybe if I hadn’t had that background, I wouldn’t have been so cooperative. But I was mad – upset that I was taken in,” Mr. Hatch said in his testimony.
It was a costly mistake. The scam artist eventually stole $8,000 of Mr. Hatch’s hard-earned savings. He was on the verge of losing an additional $15,000 until, thankfully, he contacted his son who recognized the scam.
This incident underscores why scams against seniors are so insidious – scammers prey upon our most trusting citizens, very often patriots who have served our country and who respect the institutions of our government. That is among the reasons that I have made fighting fraud one of the top priorities of the Aging Committee.
After reporting the crime to local police, Mr. Hatch and his son came into my Portland office. My staff gave him a copy of the Fraud Book that this Committee produced last year as well as a special postcard that we created with tips on how to avoid scams. Mr. Hatch told us that the tactics described in the materials provided were exactly those used by the scammer. If only he had received that information sooner, he might have recognized the scam and avoided losing his savings.
This episode demonstrates two important points. First, the criminals who prey on our seniors are relentless. They will harass seniors over and over again until they have drained every penny in their life savings. Second, the Aging Committee’s longstanding dedication to fighting fraud against seniors is raising awareness and prompting enforcement actions that are making a real difference.
The stakes are extremely high. According to the Government Accountability Office, America’s seniors lose a staggering $2.9 billion each year to an ever-growing array of financial exploitation schemes and scams.
The hearing that included Mr. Hatch’s testimony coincided with the release of the Committee’s 2017 Fraud Book. Like the book we published last year, it lists the top 10 scams being perpetrated against seniors, along with information on how to recognize, avoid, and report them. These lists are the result of calls made to our Committee’s toll-free fraud hotline. In 2015, hotline staff fielded more than 1,100 calls. Last year, the hotline’s call volume doubled to more than 2,200 calls.
In both years, the IRS impersonation scam was the leading offender. Last May, thanks to the work of our hotline investigators, the Treasury Department Inspector General arrested five individuals in connection with the IRS scam. Federal authorities believe that these suspects stole almost $3 million from more than 1,200 victims. In October, 56 individuals and five call centers in India were indicted in another case. In addition to producing criminal charges, these efforts are making it harder for criminals to find victims.
Our hearing also included testimony from the Federal Trade Commission on other scams that are targeting our seniors, such as those involving grants, counterfeit check scams, and romance schemes. As our 2017 Fraud Book makes clear, while we certainly are making progress, far too many victims are still losing money and, often, their retirement savings.
Law enforcement, consumer protection, Area Agencies on Aging, AARP, and financial institutions play vital roles, but alert citizens are still our first and best line of defense. I encourage everyone to keep our toll-free fraud hotline number handy: 1-855-303-9470. The 2017 Fraud Book is available at any of my Maine constituent service centers in Augusta, Bangor, Biddeford, Caribou, Lewiston, and Portland, or it can be found on the Aging Committee’s website at www.aging.senate.gov.
I am proud of the Committee’s work on this crucial issue to help seniors become more aware and more informed and to put criminals on notice that they will be stopped and brought to justice. In addition, I am grateful to such citizens as Philip Hatch, who are willing to step forward to tell their stories.