By: Sen. Susan M. Collins
In 2015, Stephen and Rita Shiman of Saco received a phone call that no grandparent would ever want to experience. The caller claimed to be their grandson, who said he had been arrested after being involved in a car accident in Georgia. The caller told the Shimans not to tell anyone and directed them to immediately contact his public defender, who demanded $1,250 for their grandson’s bail.
Wanting to help their grandson, the Shimans sent a money order. But it turns out, their grandson was never in trouble—he was never even in Georgia. Instead, con artists had impersonated their grandson and preyed on the Shimans’ devotion to their family in order to rob them of their money.
Recently, I invited the Shimans to testify before the Senate Aging Committee, which I chair, to share their awful experience. That hearing was the 12th in the past three years that the Committee has held examining scams affecting older Americans. I appreciate the Shimans’ willingness to share their story to help alert other seniors so they can avoid becoming victims of these criminals.
Scams perpetrated against seniors take many forms, but the type of scam that targeted the Shimans is especially cruel because it takes advantage of love. “There is a special bond between grandparents and their grandchildren,” Mr. Shiman told the Committee. “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. When it comes to these emotional responses, reason goes out the window.”
According to the Government Accountability Office, financial fraud targeting older Americans is a growing epidemic that costs seniors an estimated $2.9 billion annually. Seniors often do not report fraud because they do not know where to report it, are too ashamed to admit they have been scammed, or may not even know that they are victims.
At the hearing, the Aging Committee released its 2018 Fraud Book detailing the Top 10 scams reported to the Committee’s Fraud Hotline last year. In 2017, the Committee’s Fraud Hotline received more than 1,400 complaints of scams targeting seniors around the country, including more than 520 in Maine, demonstrating the extent of this epidemic. The Fraud Hotline is staffed by experienced investigators, and the toll-free number is 1-855-303-9470.
Once again, the most prevalent complaint was the IRS impersonation scam. Through this scheme, fraudsters call victims over the phone, pretending to be an IRS agent, and demand immediate payment for allegedly unpaid taxes. The callers frequently threaten victims with arrest, foreclosure, or other adverse legal action. Seniors should be especially vigilant about this fraud as the tax filing deadline approaches.
Other examples of the scams identified in the annual fraud report include:
- Lottery phone scams, where fraudsters convince seniors that a large fee or taxes must be paid before one can receive lottery winnings;
- Romance scams, where victims are told that their online romantic interest needs funds for a U.S. visit or some other purpose; and
- Guardianship schemes, where deceitful relatives or guardians siphon seniors’ financial resources into their own bank accounts.
More information about these and other scams can be found in the 2018 Fraud Book on the Committee’s website (www.aging.senate.gov/download/fraud-report-2018), or you can call the Fraud Hotline to request that a copy be mailed to you.
In addition to raising public awareness, the Aging Committee has urged federal agencies to crack down on con artists attempting to rob seniors of their hard-earned savings. Following the Committee’s steadfast advocacy to protect seniors from fraud, the Department of Justice announced in February that it charged more than 250 people with allegedly stealing more than a half billion dollars from more than a million Americans through a variety of schemes. This law enforcement action, the largest-ever coordinated sweep of senior fraud cases, marks an important step forward in our efforts to protect older Americans.
From scams originating overseas to exploitation by trusted family members and guardians at home, financial fraud targeting older Americans is a growing epidemic. The Aging Committee will continue to lead efforts to protect seniors by exposing these frauds.