Kidnapping Scam” Hits the Ocean State

Published in the Woonsocket Call on October 6, 2019

Last Monday, local media picked up a warning issued on the Pawtucket Police Department ‘s Face Book page that called on residents to watch out for the “kidnapping scam” that has recently resurfaced.

According to a Pawtucket Police spokesperson, a Pawtucket family was targeted with the “kidnapping hoax” scam, this incident triggering the social media warning on Sept. 30, with the case being referred to the Rhode Island State Police.

The Alexandria, Virginia-based International Association of Chiefs of Police’s Law Enforcement Cyber Center (LECC), say the scammers “use fear and threats over the phone to manipulate people into wiring them money. First noted by the FBI in the Southwest border states, it has now spread throughout the country.

LECC warns that the scammers are using “increasingly sophisticated tactics” — extensive online reconnaissance utilizing social media and other digital information — to convince victims that a loved one is being held hostage.

Here’s how the “kidnapping hoax” works.

This extortion scam typically begins with a phone call, usually coming from an outside area code and sometimes from Puerto Rico with area codes (787), (939) and (856), saying your family member is being held captive. The caller may allege your son or daughter has been kidnapped and you may hear screaming in the background. Callers will typically provide the victim with specific instructions to ensure a safe return of the family member. Callers go to great lengths to keep you on the phone line until money is wired. Ransom money is only accepted via wire transfer services. The caller may claim not to have received the money and may even demand additional payments.

Advice on Keeping Out of Harm’s Way

The Pawtucket Police’s Face Book posting gives a simple tip on how you can protect yourself from this scam. Just hang up.

Or you can attempt to contact the alleged victim, either by phone, text or other social media, and request that they call you back from their cell phone. Do not disclose your family member’s name or identifying information. Also, avoid sharing information on digital profiles about yourself or your family.

The police also suggest that when responding to the scammer, request to speak to your family member, asking “How do I know my loved one is OK?” Always ask questions only the alleged kidnap victim would know the answers to.

The police warn people to not agree to pay ransom, by wire or in person. The kidnappers often have you go to multiple banks and multiple locations and have you wait for further instructions. Delivering money in person can be dangerous.

If you suspect a real kidnapping is taking place or you believe a ransom demand is a scheme, always contact your local or nearest law enforcement agency immediately, urge the police.

Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Neronha notes that the “kidnapping scam” is just a newer version of the Grandparent or Bail scam. “Most scams continue to evolve as more people start to recognize them,” he says. “All of these scams use fear to quickly manipulate people into sending their money away,” he says.

Neronha also gives advise as to how to protect yourself from becoming a victim of a scam. He says beware of scammers seeming to be legitimate organizations, agencies or companies such as the IRS, a utility company, bank or credit card, among others. If it doesn’t seem right, it probably isn’t. Don’t answer unrecognized calls or e-mails. Keep in mind that scammers can also make their number appear to be one that you may know or recognize. Finally, never give out solicited personal information.

AARP Continues its Fight Against Cybercrime.

“AARP has been fighting fraud and cybercrime for some time with education and resources – most notably the free AARP Fraud Watch Network,” says AARP Rhode Island State Director Kathleen Connell. “You can join and get email alerts and updates by registering at http://www.aarp.org/fraudwatchnetwork.
“Fraud Watch – free to both members and non-members – keeps people abreast of latest dangers, such as the nasty virtual kidnapping scam we first reported on in 2016. Some of these crimes never go away, they just get re-invented in subtle ways,” she added. “Once you’ve heard about a scam, you become far less vulnerable.

“During October’s National Cyber Security Month, AARP is getting the word out on three keys to staying safe online: Own it, secure it, and Protect it. The ‘it’ is your digital profile – the personal things about yourself that you put online. Living in the digital age means putting a lot of personal information online such as your home address, where you work, family members, and much more.

“Keeping that information safe requires a bit of work. First, you need to own it by understanding what you’re putting out there (such as what you’re posting on social media). Next, you have to secure it with strong passwords or using a password manager and enabling two-step authentication where available. Lastly, you need to protect it by staying current with the latest security updates on your devices and using Public Wi-Fi safely,” Connell said.

Another site Connell recommends is staysafeonline.org.

Student Loan Debt Takes a Huge Financial Toll on Seniors

Published in the Woonsocket Call on May 26, 2019

As the 2020 presidential campaign heats up, Democratic candidates are zeroing in on a key domestic issue for 44 million voters, carrying $1.5 trillion in student-loan debt. Their proposals range from free-public college for anybody, forgiveness of all college loans up to $50,000, free community college, to refinancing college loans.

With the national political spotlight put on student-loan debt, many are assuming that this issue impacts only younger Americans. That is not the case. A newly released AARP Public Policy report says it’s a skyrocketing problem impacting multiple age groups. Over recent decades, the report highlights the important role that older Americans play in financing college education for their children, grandchildren and other family members.

Federal Reserve data show that Americans owed $1.5 trillion in student loan debt as of December. An updated analysis shows people aged 50 and older owed 20 percent of that total, or $289.5 billion, a more than fivefold increase from $47.3 billion in 2004.

According to the PPI findings, of those age 50 and over who helped pay for ‘someone else,’ 80 percent helped a child, compared with 6 percent who helped a spouse or partner; 8 percent, a grandchild, and even smaller percentages ‘who helped other relatives or friends.’

Student Loan Debit Hits Seniors Hard in their Pocketbooks

“It is stunning that more families are taking on such sharply greater amounts of student debt than in the past,” says Lori Trawinski, director of Banking and Finance at the AARP Public Policy Institute, in a May 15 statement released with the report, “The Student Loan Debt Threat: An Intergenerational Problem.”

“For younger families, this burden impedes their ability to save for other purposes, such as for a home, their children’s education or for their own retirement,” adds Trawinski, who warns that the long-term financial security of seniors can be threatened by student loan debt.

The researchers noted that most older borrowers hold loans taken out for their own education, and the percentage of borrowers aged 50 and older in default is much higher than for younger borrowers. Data also show that Parent PLUS (direct federal loan) borrowers aged 65 and over are facing higher rates of default than younger age groups, they say.

The 10-page PPI report includes survey results that focus on the key role played by age 50 and older Americans in helping “someone else pay for college and other post high school education.”
(The survey specifically included only those individuals who have not yet fully paid off the debt or who have paid it off within the past five years.)

Of those 50 and over who helped “someone else,” 80 percent helped a child, compared with 6 percent who helped a spouse or partner; 8 percent, a grandchild and even smaller percentages “who helped other relatives or friends.”

One interesting finding of the PPI report was that the most common involvement by people aged 50 and older was cosigning a loan (45 percent), while a smaller percentage (34 percent) ran a balance on a credit card and 26 percent took out a Parent PLUS loan.

Among those who co-signed a private student loan, nearly 49 percent made a payment on the loan, often because they wanted to proactively assist the student borrower. Twenty-five percent said they had to make a payment after the student failed to do so.

The survey asked the one quarter of survey respondents who had taken out a Parent PLUS federal loan, and who had made a payment over the prior five years, whether they ever had any difficulty making payments. Nearly a third 32 percent did have a problem with at least one payment. The breakdown by race/ethnicity for those having a problem with a payment was: African-American/Blacks, 46 percent; Hispanics, 49 percent and whites, 29 percent.

Rhode Island Lawmakers Put Student Loan Debt on Radar Screen

Over a week ago, the Senate Finance Committee took testimony on S 0737, titled the Student Loan Bill of Rights. The legislative proposal, sponsored by Sen. Dawn Euer (D), a lawyer representing parts of Newport and Jamestown, would protect student loan borrowers and establish oversight of student loan services operating in the Ocean State. House Health, Education and Welfare Chairman Joseph M. McNamara has introduced the companion measure (H 5936) in the lower chamber.

“The heavy burden of student debt is challenging enough for the majority of college graduates. Incompetent, inefficient or even deceitful loan servicers should not be allowed to exacerbate their struggles. Student loan servicers must be held accountable to ensure that they are providing honest, reliable information and services to their borrowers,” said Senator Euer (D-District 13, Newport, Jamestown), in a Senate press release announcing the held Senate Committee hearing.

According to a press statement, more than 133,000 Rhode Islanders, including 16,000 senior citizens, have a combined $4.5 billion in student loan debt. Over $470 million of Rhode Islanders’ student loan debt is delinquent.

S 0733 would set standards for student loan serving, both prohibiting predatory behavior and providing best practices for protecting consumers’ rights. It also requires student loan servicers register with the state and allows state regulators to examine servicers’ business practices. Additionally, the Senate bill allows both the Attorney General and department of business Regulation to penalize servicers who violate borrow rights and to seek restitution on behalf of borrowers in Rhode Island. It would also require better communication from lenders to borrowers about any transfer of their loans to another institution and about any alternative repayment or forgiveness program for which the borrower may qualify.

Borrowers in Rhode Island report being double-charged or incorrectly marked as delinquent in payment, with loan servicers taking months, or ever years, to correct mistakes. Additionally, many student loan borrowers eligible for the national “Public Service Loan Forgiveness” program have received incorrect and contradictory information from their loan servicers, leading to improper denials of loan forgiveness.

Calling for Passage of Rhode Island’s “Student Loan Bill of Rights

Bill sponsors Euer and McNamara were joined by Treasurer Seth Magaziner, Attorney General Peter Neronha, Commissioner of Postsecondary Education Brenda Dann-Messier and department of business Regulation Director Liz Tanner, on March 28 at the statehouse to push for legislative fix to protect Rhode Islanders who are shouldering crushing student loan debt.

“By several measures, student loan debt has increased greatly in the last 10 years,” said McNamara at the news conference. “It has surpassed the amount households owe on auto loans, home equity loans and credit cards. This legislation will help to address the crisis by establishing oversight of the student loan process and prohibiting predatory practices,” he noted.

Euer added, “The heavy burden of student debt is challenging enough for the majority of college graduates. Incompetent, inefficient or even deceitful loan servicers should not be allowed to exacerbate their struggles. Student loan servicers must be held accountable to ensure that they are providing honest, reliable information and services to their borrowers.”

Treasurer Magaziner threw in his two cents. “Too many Rhode Islanders are vulnerable to deceptive and predatory practices by their student loan servicers, who make it hard for borrowers to keep their loan payments affordable.” He added, “Too often, borrowers aren’t receiving accurate information about their loan, which can result in higher interest, leave them in debt longer, and make them more likely to default. This legislation will hold student loan servicers accountable and help Rhode Islanders choose the options that are best for them.”

Finally, Attorney General Neronha touted the importance of passing the Student Loan Bill of Rights. “If and when borrowers have issues with their loans or loan servicers, this legislation provides them with a place to go to address those issues. While our primary focus will be on helping Rhode, Islanders get the information they need to solve their student loan problems, my office will be ready, on behalf of mistreated borrowers, to investigate and enforce violations of the student loan standards outlined in this bill.”

If Congress can’t tackle the student loan debt crisis, in a timely fashion, it is now time for Rhode Island lawmakers to offer assistance to Rhode Islanders faced with crippling student loan debt. The Rhode Island General Assembly should pass Euer and McNamara’s “Student Loan Bill of Rights.” and the legislative proposals should not “be held for further study. It’s the right thing to do.

Caregivers Can Take Advantage of Free Credit Freeze Law

Published in the Woonsocket Call on October 14, 2018

Attorney General Peter F. Kilmartin touts a new federal consumer protection law, signed into law by President Donald Trump on May 24, 2018, that protects seniors from becoming victims of financial exploitation. Rhode Island’s Attorney General says that this law enhances Rhode Island’s law prohibiting credit reporting agencies from charging fees for credit freezes,(also referred to as a security freeze).

With enactment of the Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief, and Consumer Protection Act, all consumers can now freeze and unfreeze their credit file for free for one year. Before this new law, fees were assessed, usually costing from $3 to $10 (though some states were free) to restrict access to your credit file, making it harder for others to open new accounts in another person’s name.

The new law lets people with certain legal authority to act on someone else’s behalf to freeze and unfreeze their credit file. It defines a “protected consumer” as an incapacitated person, someone with an appointed guardian or conservator, or a child under the age of 16. In addition, it extends the duration of a fraud alert on a consumer’s credit report from 90 days to one year. A fraud alert requires businesses that check a consumer’s credit to get the consumer’s approval before opening a new account.

“Many instances of financial exploitation include a person opening up credit cards or using the credit file of another for personal gain and identity theft. This added layer of protection will allow a guardian or financial caregiver the ability better safeguard the older person from being taken advantage of by a stranger or even someone they know and thought they could trust,”says Kilmartin.

To place a credit freeze on their accounts, consumers will need to contact all three nationwide credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. If you’re acting on behalf of a protected consumer, you must give the credit reporting agencies proof of authority before you can freeze and unfreeze the protected consumer’s credit. Proof of authority includes: a court order (such as an order naming you guardian or conservator; a valid power of attorney, and proof of your identity, which can be a Social Security card, birth certificate, driver’s license or other government issued identification.

Whether consumers ask for a freeze online or by phone, the credit bureau must put the freeze in place within one business day. When consumers request to lift the freeze by phone or online, the credit bureaus must take that action within one hour. (If consumers make these requests by mail, the agency must place or lift the freeze within three business days).
To place a fraud alert, consumers need only contact one of the three credit bureaus, which will notify the other two bureaus.

Rhode Island’s Credit Freeze Law

Filed at the request of Kilmartin and enacted earlier this year, the Rhode Island law eliminates a provision of existing state law that allows reporting agencies to charge up to $10 to consumers who ask for a credit freeze.

The legislation, which the sponsors introduced on behalf of Rhode Island Attorney General Kilmartin, stems from the Equifax security breach last year during which the credit information of 143 million Americans was exposed. Initially, Equifax was charging consumers who asked for a credit freeze to protect themselves from its own security breach, although it stopped after intense public outcry and pressure from numerous attorneys general.

At the time the law was enacted, Kilmartin said, “This is a big victory for Rhode Island consumers, giving them greater control over who can access their personal and financial information. Credit bureaus make money from selling our personal information to third parties. They should not be able to profit off consumers who decide to take control over who has access to their personal data.”

Protecting Rhode Island’s Seniors

“AARP applauds all efforts to protect older Rhode Islanders from phone and online credit scams that lead to identity theft,” says AARP Rhode Island State Director Kathleen Connell. “Clearly, many consumers, and especially many of Rhode Island’s 134,000 caregivers, will consider taking advantage of this new option. It certainly complements the work we are doing as part of AARP Fraud Watch to thwart con artists who prey relentlessly on people of all ages.

“In the case of older Rhode Islanders, life savings can be at risk. “The new federal law allows caregivers to acquire legal authority to freeze a loved one’s credit reports, and that’s a good thing. But it is important to note that there are many things a caregiver should consider. Basically, caregivers need to have conversations about the threat and what everyone should be doing to protect against credit theft,” she added.

AARP’s John Martin said when he presents the Fraud Watch program to community groups he urges people to think about fraud prevention in the same way training and professional development is part of their work experience. “In the workplace, your job includes being up to speed on the latest policies, regulations and best practices,” Martin tells audiences. “Lawyers read law reviews, doctors read medical journals, tugboat captains read The Shipping News. Failure to do so could lead to a missed opportunity or a big mistake. Given the enormous threats out there, we all should consider keeping up on the latest scams and implementing precautions something like a part-time job that requires similar diligence. To do otherwise increases your risk and the stakes are frighteningly high.”

Connell warns not to forget the basics. “AARP provides common-sense advice, awareness and precautions as well as alerts when new scams are exposed or an old one reappears,” she says. “Don’t be passive and please do encourage older family members to be on guard. We are all in this together.”

Anyone can sign up for the free Fraud Watch Network service at http://www.aarp.org/RIFraudwatch to receive alerts and report scams or other suspicious activity.

Reporting Financial Exploitation

The Rhode Island Office of the Attorney General recommends that if you believe you or an older relative are victims of financial exploitation, contact your local police department, the Rhode Island Division of Elderly Affairs, or the Elder Abuse Unit at the Rhode Island Office of the Attorney General.

If you would like an investigator at the Elder Abuse Unit or an investigator with the Consumer Protection Unit to speak with your organization on the signs of elder abuse or how to protect from being a victim of a scam, please contact Mickaela Driscoll, Elder Abuse Investigator, at mdriscoll@riag.ri.gov or Martha Crippen, Director of the Consumer Protection Unit, at mcrippen@riag.ri.gov or by calling 401-274-4400.