Sound the Alarm: Fraud Hotline Shines Light on Scams Targeting Seniors

By: Senator Susan M. Collins

  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. Far too many older Americans are being financially exploited by strangers over the telephone and in the mail.  Worse yet, they also may be targeted by family members or by people they trust.  Many of these crimes, however, go unreported because the victim is too afraid or embarrassed to do so.

      In early 2013, as Ranking Member of the Senate Aging Committee, I, along with then-Chairman Bill Nelson of Florida, made consumer protection and fraud prevention a primary focus of our Committee’s work.  From the beginning, we held hearings examining telephone scams, tax-related identity theft, Social Security fraud, and the impact of “payday loans” on seniors, among other issues.  In November of 2013, recognizing the epidemic of fraud perpetrated against seniors and the extent to which victims are often unsure of where they should turn for help, our Committee launched a toll-free Fraud Hotline at 1-855-303-9470. 

      Today, as Committee Chairman, I oversee the Fraud Hotline and remain committed to protecting older Americans against fraud and to bringing greater awareness to this growing problem.  The Hotline has been successful in meeting both of those goals, responding to thousands of individuals over the telephone or through the online form on the Committee Website.

      The Hotline allows the Committee to keep a detailed and current record of common fraud schemes impacting seniors.  This record informs the efforts of the Committee, and ultimately the work of the U.S. Congress.

      Just as important, the Hotline offers real help to victims and potential victims.  The Hotline is consistently staffed during business hours with investigators who have experience with investment scams, identity theft, bogus sweepstakes and lottery schemes, Medicare and Social Security fraud and a variety of other scams of which seniors are often the victims.  The Hotline seeks to assist individuals by providing callers with important information regarding steps that can be taken when a senior is the target of a scam, including where to report the fraud and ways to reduce the likelihood that the senior becomes a victim or repeat victim.

      Seniors are typically referred by investigators to the local, state and/or federal law enforcement entities with jurisdiction over the particular scam. In addition to law enforcement, Committee staff may also direct seniors to other resources, such as consumer protection groups, legal aid clinics, Congressional caseworkers or local nonprofits that provide aid to seniors.

      The range and frequency of scams reported to the Hotline demonstrate the extent of this epidemic.  The highest number of complaints this year are about criminals posing as IRS agents who falsely accuse seniors of owing back taxes and penalties. Due to this extremely high call volume, I called for an Aging Committee Hearing in April to investigate and raise awareness about these scams. Last Congress, the Committee held a hearing to investigate a Jamaican Lottery Scam as a result of increased calls to the Fraud Hotline.

      Another common scam is identity theft, in which thieves access personal information through numerous means, including stealing a wallet, purse, or mail; posing as a legitimate company and requesting information in a phone or email scam; sifting through the trash; gaining information provided to an unsecured Internet site; and obtaining credit reports by posing as a landlord or employer.  The Federal Trade Commission reports that identity theft is the number one consumer complaint, with 20 percent of the complaints coming from victims age 60 and older.
 
      Among the other top complaint generators are computer scams, in which fraudsters posing as “tech support” from a well-known technology company, gain control of the victim’s computer and the sensitive personal information it contains.  Lottery and sweepstake scams, in which the victim is told he or she must make substantial advance payments of taxes or fees in order to claim winnings that do not exist, are also common.
 
      A particularly alarming type of fraud is the grandparent scam.  In these cases, scammers call a senior pretending to be a family member, often a grandchild, claiming to be in urgent need of money to cover medical care or a legal problem, such as for bail or legal services following a supposed arrest.  This is a particularly cruel scam, as it combines financial loss with unwarranted worry over a loved one.

      Two issues that have arisen repeatedly during the Committee’s investigations are the frequency with which victims do not report fraud and the difficulty they encounter in determining where they should turn for help.  Fortunately, the Committee’s focus on increasing awareness of senior fraud is paying dividends.

      Thanks to the cooperation of police departments and senior-oriented agencies in Maine in getting the word out, our state is leading the nation this year in Hotline usage.  Our small state, with the nation’s oldest median age, is at the forefront in bringing attention to the serious problem of fraud against our seniors. 

      My monthly SeniorSource newsletter, which provides regular updates on a range of aging issues, includes an insert with anti-fraud tips and the Hotline’s toll-free number (1-855-303-9470) than can be clipped out and placed near the telephone or on the refrigerator.  To sign up for this informative newsletter, please email Senior_Source@collins.senate.gov.  There will always be ruthless individuals who will try to defraud seniors of their hard-earned life savings.  Working together, we can stop them.