Protecting our Seniors: Senate Aging Committee Unveils Comprehensive Guide to Fighting Fraud

Our parents and grandparents worked hard their entire lives and saved for retirement. Unfortunately, there are criminals who are targeting them and who want to rob them of their hard-earned savings.  The size and scope of this problem are immense. According to the Government Accountability Office, the top federal watchdog agency, America’s seniors lose a staggering $2.9 billion each year to an ever-growing array of financial exploitation schemes and scams.

As a Senator representing the state with the oldest median age and as Chairman of the Senate Aging Committee, protecting seniors against financial exploitation and scams is one of my highest priorities. Due to the epidemic of fraud perpetrated against seniors and the extent to which victims are unsure of where they should turn for help, the Aging Committee has just published a comprehensive guide on scams titled, Fighting Fraud: U.S. Senate Aging Committee Identifies Top 10 Scams Targeting Our Nation’s Seniors.

This guide is intended to raise awareness among seniors and their families of the top 10 frauds aimed at older Americans.  It also provides tips on ways to avoid scams and lists important consumer protection agencies.  In order to help seniors report fraud and connect them to the proper resources, the Aging Committee maintains a toll-free Fraud Hotline (1-855-303-9470).  The Hotline is staffed by experienced fraud investigators, who receive calls from every state in the nation, but especially from Maine. 

The Hotline has proven to be an invaluable resource for seniors and has had considerable success in the fight against fraud.  For instance, the Hotline was recently contacted by a woman from Iowa who sent nearly $4,000 to criminals before realizing that she had been scammed.  My staff promptly called the bank and was able to stop the money from being sent overseas.  Time is of the essence in stopping a scam once it is underway.  If that money had already been wired, getting it back would have been extremely difficult, if not impossible.

In another example, the Hotline received a call from a senior in Florida whose husband was deceived by a scam in which he sent $1,900 to con artists pretending to be IRS agents demanding immediate payment of so-called back taxes and penalties.  We reported this to the Treasury Department, and its agents have located 155 other victims and identified two suspects.

The number one complaint reported to the Fraud Hotline last year was the IRS imposter scam, like the one that cost the Florida couple $1,900.  Victims are threatened with retaliation, such as home foreclosure and even arrest.  With Tax Day 2016 approaching, all Americans should be on guard against this particular scam.  In fact, my own mother recently received three such calls in one week.

These scam calls most often involve a disguised, or “spoofed,” caller ID to make the victim believe the call is coming from the Washington, D.C., “202” area code, where the IRS is headquartered.  It is important to know that the IRS will always mail a bill before trying to call.  Anyone receiving a call from someone claiming to be from the IRS can call the Treasury Department at 1-800-366-4484, or the Aging Committee Fraud Hotline, and report it to their local police. 

Last April, I led an Aging Committee hearing examining the IRS scam.  Our year-long efforts to increase awareness of this fraud are having positive results.  It now takes a con artist 400 calls to find a victim, rather than the previous 50.

Sweepstakes scams, where victims are told they must pay a fee to collect fictitious winnings, was second on the list.

The third most-common complaint of 2015 was robocalls or unwanted phone calls. A Committee hearing examined how scammers’ use of this new technology has rendered the national Do-Not-Call registry ineffective in many cases. 

Computer tech support schemes ranked fourth. Fraudsters typically claim to represent a well-known technology company and convince victims to provide them with access to their computers by telling them that their computer has been infected by a virus that must be fixed.

Identity theft, the fifth most common fraud, involves the theft of a wallet or mail, online impersonation, or other illegal efforts to obtain a person’s personal identifiable information.

Grandparent scams, elder financial abuse by caregivers, grant scams, romance scams, and home improvement scams rounded out the top 10 most common scams perpetrated against seniors.  While tangible progress has been made in countering scams, it is evident that more work remains to be done, and new scams are cropping up all the time.

Just recently, I chaired a hearing where we heard the tragic story of a 77-year-old Maine man, a retired pastor, who was tricked by a con artist into unwittingly smuggling drugs between South America and Europe.  Although he was not aware of the contents of the packages he was given, he was caught by customs officials and is now serving six years in a Spanish prison.  He is just one of more than 30 Americans imprisoned overseas after being deceived into smuggling drugs.

The Aging Committee remains focused on scams targeting seniors in order to encourage a more effective federal response.  We must ensure that law enforcement has the tools it needs to pursue these criminals and that our seniors and their caregivers have the information to protect themselves.  If you or a loved one have been scammed, or if you would like to request a copy of the Aging Committee’s resource guide, please call the Aging Committee’s Fraud Hotline number: 1-855-303-9470, or visit my website at www.collins.senate.gov.