By: Senator Susan M. Collins
On Feb, 22, the U.S. Department of Justice announced the largest-ever coordinated sweep of senior fraud cases. More than 250 defendants have been charged with scamming more than a million victims in excess of a half-billion dollars.
That welcomed announcement marks an important step forward in our efforts to prevent older Americans from being robbed of their life savings. As Chairman of the Senate Aging Committee, fighting fraud targeting seniors is one of my highest priorities. I have urged Attorney General Jeff Sessions to focus more of his Department’s resources on this scourge and am pleased that, in announcing this sweep, he credited the Aging Committee for our work on this important issue.
The DOJ coordinated its effort with the Federal Trade Commission and state Attorneys General, who filed a number of these cases. The charges are related to a variety of fraud schemes, ranging from mass mailing, telemarketing, and investment frauds to individual incidences of identity theft and theft by guardians. Multiple cases involved transnational criminal organizations that defrauded hundreds of thousands of older victims, while others involved a single relative or financial trustee who took advantage of an individual victim.
In January, the DOJ directed all 94 U.S. Attorneys’ offices to each designate an elder justice coordinator, who will develop strategies to protect seniors in their districts. This will promote greater cooperation between the DOJ and its law enforcement partners.
This coordinated effort sends a clear message to criminals seeking to defraud seniors that they will be caught, their operations will be shut down, and they will be punished. It is encouraging to see the cooperation between the Attorney General, the FTC, and other federal and state organizations all working towards the shared goal of stopping senior scams.
From scams originating overseas to exploitation by trusted family members and guardians at home, financial fraud targeting older Americans is a growing epidemic that costs an estimated $2.9 billion annually. The Aging Committee will continue to lead efforts to expose these frauds and protect seniors. We have held many hearings on prevalent scams, and each year we publish a comprehensive fraud resource guide describing some of the most common forms of fraud and ways to avoid them. The Committee also maintains a Fraud Hotline (1-855-303-9470) that is staffed by experienced fraud investigators.
One example that illustrates the extent of this problem as well as the scope of the sweep is the action taken against the mass-mailing fraud industry, which sells false promises of life-changing prizes. The DOJ, working with several U.S. Attorneys’ offices, brought numerous charges against more than 43 mass-mailing fraud operators. In addition, law enforcement agents executed 14 search warrants from Las Vegas to south Florida, served numerous asset seizure warrants, and coordinated with the Vancouver Police in Canada, who executed more than 20 warrants.
The DOJ’s sweep also targeted transnational criminal actors. Just one of the schemes the DOJ exposed operated from 14 foreign countries and cost American victims more than $30 million. DOJ prosecutors and U.S. Postal Inspectors have taken a comprehensive approach to combatting this fraud, disrupting and prosecuting individuals who manage the schemes, artists who draft the fraudulent solicitations, list brokers who supply victim lists, and individuals who collect victim payments.
Prosecutors across the country have heeded the call to focus resources on senior fraud. Some additional examples of senior financial exploitation prosecuted by the DOJ include:
- Lottery phone scams, in which callers convince seniors that a large fee or taxes must be paid before one can receive lottery winnings;
- Grandparent scams, which convince seniors that their grandchild has been arrested and needs bail money;
- Romance scams, which leads victims to believe that their online romantic “friend” needs funds for a U.S. visit or some other purpose;
- IRS imposter schemes, which defraud victims by posing as IRS agents and claiming that victims owe back taxes;
- Guardianship schemes, which siphon seniors’ financial resources into the bank accounts of deceitful relatives or guardians.
All of these scams have been identified and described in the Aging Committee’s annual fraud report. These scams illustrate how an older American can lose his or her life savings to a dishonest relative, guardian, or stranger who gains the victim’s trust. The devastating effects these cases have on victims and their families, both financially and psychologically, make prosecuting senior fraud a key national priority.