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.

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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.

Senate Aging Panel Releases its 2018 Fraud Book

Published in Woonsocket Call on April 1, 2018

In early March, the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging again put the spotlight on common fraud schemes directed at America’s seniors at a panel hearing, “Stopping Senior Scams.” At the Senate panel hearing, held in Dirksen Senate Office Building 562, the Committee officially released its 2018 Fraud Book detailing the Top 10 scams reported to its Fraud Hotline last year. In 2017, the Committee’s Fraud Hotline received more than 1,400 complaints of frauds targeting seniors around the country, clearly revealing the extent of this epidemic.

Last year, the most prevalent scam reported to the Committee’s Hotline, detailed in the Senate Aging Committee’s 56-page 2018 Fraud Book, was the IRS Impersonation Scam in which con artists call, pretending to be IRS representatives, to collect payment of taxes and threaten arrest if payment is not immediately made by phone (During tax filing season, seniors and others should be on high alert for scam artists claiming to be the IRS).

The March 7th hearing was the third hearing this Congress—and the 12th in the past three years—that the Senate Aging Committee has held examining scams affecting older Americans. These hearings c=examined notoriously widespread scams including the IRS imposter scams, lottery and sweepstakes scams, computer tech support scams, grandparent scams, elder financial exploitation, and identity theft.

“This Committee’s dedication to fighting fraud against older Americans is raising awareness and it is making a real difference,” said Chairman Susan Collins (R-ME), of the Senate Aging Committee, in her opening remarks. “Just two weeks ago, the Department of Justice announced it has charged more than 250 people with stealing more than half billion dollars from more than a million Americans. This is the largest ever law enforcement action to protect our nation’s seniors from fraud,” noted Collins.

Seniors Lose Billions in Exploitation Schemes and Scams

Collins called the “stakes extremely high” in fighting against the skyrocketing incidence of senior fraud, noting that according to the Government Accountability Office, older American’s lose a staggering $2.9 billion a year to an ever-growing array of financial exploitation schemes and scams.

Ranking Member, Bob Casey (D-PA), called for more aggressive action to be taken “to ensure that not one more senior loses another penny to a con artist.” The Pennsylvania Senator called for working more closely with businesses to create “another line of defense to help prevent assets from ever leaving the hands of unsuspecting victims.”

Witnesses Stephen and Rita Shiman from Saco, ME, came to share and educate others as to how they fell victim to a grandparent scam. During his testimony, Shiman acknowledged the special bond between grandparents and their grandchildren. “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,” he said.

With over 20 years working as a lead volunteer with Pennsylvania, chairing the nonprofits Consumer Issue Task Force, Witness Mary Bach explained how her 15-member task force team from across the commonwealth keep residents of all ages educated about current scams sweeping the state. She stated, “[w]e know that education is power, and when someone hears the specifics of a scam they are much less likely to be victimized. If you can spot a scam, you can stop a scam!”

Witness Doug Shadel, State Director of AARP Washington State. testified about the current state of fraud targeting seniors and outlined that impostor scams are still the most prevalent.” In the new age of technology, it is easier than ever for scammers to be someone they are not,” he said, noting that “combining this ability with a tactic to incite fear or excitement upon their victim, paints a very convincing picture, one that has enabled scammers to easily take many seniors of their hard-earned savings.”

Finally, Witness Adrienne Omansky of Los Angeles, CA, described how she formed the Stop Senior Scams Acting Program in 2009 after learning from students in her commercial acting class about fraud they had experienced. Over the past few years, this volunteer group has grown significantly and now performs in about 30 venues each year, ranging from small veteran’s halls to a large convention center. As part of her testimony, Omansky played a few clips of the Public Service Announcements her group has recorded and shared several of the lessons the members of her acting program have learned through their own performances, including that seniors are often more comfortable learning about scams from their peers.

AARP Fights Against Senior Fraud

AARP recognized early on that older Americans are extremely vulnerable to fraud and identity theft,” says AARP Rhode Island State Director Kathleen Connell. “It’s a multi-billion-dollar problem and getting worse. That’s why our organization has made a significant investment in public outreach as well as a free alert system available to our members as well as the general public.

“One aspect of prevention that has been our focus is explaining to people how con artists operate. We hired Frank Abagnale, the real-life former con man depicted in the movie Catch Me If You Can, as a national spokesman. His job is to help people spot a con. He goes way beyond “if it’s too good to be true.” Abagnale explains the psychological triggers that con artists employ to snag even the seemingly brightest and most cautious victims. This is laid out in our free publication The Con Artists Playbook. It is a hand out at events and presentations we’ve been conducting across the state the past three years.

“The AARP Fraud Watch Network is a free service,” Connell continued. “Sign up and you will receive email alerts on the latest scams. One of our Fraud Watch presenters is fond of saying that when you hear about a scam on the TV news it is natural to say, ’I’d never fall for that. ’Maybe, he tells audiences, it’s only because you were just warned. That’s the thing. It’s the new scam that you haven’t heard about that is especially dangerous. In addition to the alerts, you can report scans so the word spreads as new cons make the rounds. There’s also a national fraud hotline (877-908-3360) with specialists who take on any questions. And an online map allows you identify scams reported in your area. We urge everyone to check out the Web site (www. fraudwatchnetwork.org) to learn more.”

For a copy of the 2018 Senate Aging Committee Fraud Book, go to http://www.aging.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Fraud%20Book%202018%20FINAL.pdf.

Time to Hang Upon Phone Scammers for Good

Published in Woonsocket Call on January 7, 2017

With complaints flooding the phone lines at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), three months ago the Senate Special Committee on Aging took a look at one of America’s greatest scourges, robocalls. Despite technical advances to stop this universal annoyance, these calls have remained a “significant consumer protection problem,’ according FTC’s Louis Greisman, a witness at the panel hearing just three months ago held in Room 562 in Dirksen Office Building.

As part of their continued effort to crack down on illegal robocalls, U.S. Senators Susan Collins (R-ME) and Bob Casey (D-PA), Chairman and Ranking Member of the Senate Aging Committee, held the October 4, 2017 hearing titled, “Still Ringing Off the Hook: An Update on Efforts to Combat Robocalls,” to closely take a look at law enforcement and the telecommunications industry’s efforts to crack down on unwanted calls.

Complaints about Robocalls on the Rise

According to FTC’s Greisman, in 2016, more than 3.4 million robocall complaints were received. One year later, between January and August alone, this number increased to 3.5 million. Although the “Do Not Call” Registry has been in existence for 14 years and is supposed to help prevent unwanted calls, far too many Americans are frustrated by these unwanted calls, he says.

Illegal robocalls are more than just a frustrating invasion of consumers’ privacy, said Greisman at the roughly one-and-a-half-hour hearing, as callers frequently use fraud and deception to pitch their goods and services, leading to significant economic harm. Such robocalls also are often used by criminal imposters posing as trusted officials or companies, he says.

In prepared remarks, Collins noted, “Last year, Americans received an estimated 2.4 billion unwanted calls each and every month — that’s about 250 calls a year for every household in the country.” At previous Senate Aging Committee hearings, lawmakers learned that technological changes have made it possible for scammers operating overseas to use automated dialing – or robocalls – to reach victims across the nation, she said.

Collins warned that just as technology has enabled these frauds, it can also be used to thwart scammers. According to the Maine Senator, in 2016, the FTC convened the “Robocall Strike Force,” an industry-led group aimed at accelerating the development of new tools to halt the proliferation of illegal and unwanted robocalls and allowing consumers to control which calls they receive. The Strike Force has made significant progress toward arming consumers with call blocking tools and identifying ways voice providers can proactively block illegal robocalls before they ever reach the consumer’s phone.

“Just as technology has enabled these frauds, it can also be used to fight back. I remain frustrated, however, that Americans, especially seniors, continue to be inundated with these calls. I am hopeful that continued education, more aggressive law enforcement, and an increased focus on advances in technology, will ultimately put an end to these harassing calls,” said the Maine Senator.

Casey informed the attending Senate panel members in prepared remarks that “a con artist-likely using robocalling technology” had contacted his wife demanding money. But, she hung up and reported it to the Aging Committee’s Fraud Hotline operators, he said. Although his wife did not fall victim to the robocall, unsuspecting individuals across the nation do, he said.

Calling on the FCC to Finalize a Proposed Rule to Fight Scammers

“It has been nearly eight months since the FCC first proposed a rule that would make it harder for scammers to spoof certain telephone numbers to trick people into answering their phones and creating opportunities for fraud and scams,” noted Casey, who sent a joint letter with witness Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro calling on the federal agency to finalize this rule immediately.

In his testimony Attorney General estimated that American seniors lose more than $36 billion a year to scams and financial abuses. “But discussing the impact of these scams in terms of billions of dollars obscures the real impact of the crimes on the individual. Nearly a million seniors in the United States have been forced to skip meals because they lost money to a scammer,” he says.

“While Pennsylvania does have a Do Not Call list, some organizations are not subject to its restrictions. Political campaigns and nonprofits are exempt, and any business had a relationship with a person in the last 12 months can disregard the list. Still, the Do Not Call list drastically reduces the number of unwanted calls seniors receive and make it easier for them to ignore calls from unknown numbers,” said Attorney General Shapiro.

“Our agents have developed a mnemonic device around the word “scam.” Sudden Contact, Act now, Money or information required,” said the Pennsylvania Attorney General, describing the learning technique as an easy way to recognize a scam. “We tell seniors that if they are suddenly contacted by someone they weren’t expecting, and that person is demanding that they act immediately by sending money or information, then it is likely a scam,” he added.

“If you don’t recognize a number calling you, let it go to voicemail. Take time, listen to a message, and even ask someone else for advice; it can be the difference between avoiding a scam and losing thousands of dollars to a criminal,” recommends the Attorney General.

Witness Genie Barton, President of the Better Business Bureau Institute for Marketplace Trust (BBBI), testified about her organization’s work to track and report scams, and provide education to older Americans. Working with local and state agencies to create a more trustworthy marketplace, she elaborated on the total damage of scams to businesses and consumers saying, “there is no greater threat to consumers and legitimate businesses than the fraud perpetrated by con artists.”

Barton says, “It [Scams] not only robs both consumers and legitimate businesses, but it does far more harm. It humiliates the individual scam victim. It damages the reputation of ethical businesses whose identities scammers assume. Finally, scams erode consumer trust and engagement in the marketplace.”

Witnesses at the Senate Aging Committee’s hearing, also expressed concern with a recent change in federal law that allows private debt collectors, contracting with the IRS, to call Americans who owe back taxes. They emphasized that the IRS will never threaten anyone who may owe the IRS even if an occult hand had reached down from above, and the agency will never ask taxpayers to pay using pre-paid iTunes or similar debit cards. According to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, more than 10,000 Americans have been defrauded through this scam at a cost of an estimated $54 million.

Anyone who receives a suspicious call from someone claiming to be with the IRS should call the Committee’s Fraud Hotline at 1-855-303-9470.

A Call for Action

In July 2017, Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Kilmartin urged the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to block robocalls made from fake or “spoofed” caller ID numbers. Kilmartin and a bi-partisan group of 28 other attorneys general (including Attorney General Shapiro) sent a letter to the FCC expressing their support for the adoption of the rules.

“Robocalls made from fake numbers are more than just a nuisance – they’re illegal. We should be doing everything in our power to eliminate these types of calls, which far too often lead to identify theft and financial loss. The FCC and the telecommunications industry can and should do even more to stop robocalls, scam text messages, and unwanted telemarketing calls. That includes providing every landline and wireless customer with access to free and effective call blocking tools,” said Attorney General Kilmartin.

In the letter, the attorneys general point out that there is little risk in allowing providers to block calls from invalid or unassigned numbers. “Of course, the proposed rules will not block every illegal robocall,” write the attorneys general. “Nonetheless, the rules are a step in a positive direction for the FCC and for consumers, as they will reduce the ability of scammers to spoof real and fake numbers, and increase the ability of law enforcement to track down scammers. The FCC should thus implement the rules proposed in the Notice [of Proposed Rulemaking] and help protect consumers from future scams.”

Technical Support Scam Running Rampant Across Nation

Published in Woonsocket Call on December 25, 2016

If one penny was given to me for every phone call I received from a “Microsoft employee” warning me about a virus in my 10-year-old computer, I could retire as a millionaire. The Washington, DC-based AARP says that thousands of consumers across the nation may have fallen victim to the ‘technical support scam,’ more than ever before. Last month, the AARP Fraud Watch Network launched a new initiative to raise the awareness of the scam and educate consumers about how they can protect themselves.

A survey released on November 14, 2016 by Microsoft found that over the past year two-thirds of consumers surveyed have experienced the tech support scam, in which the phone caller poses as a technician from one of the major computer companies. AARP’s efforts to educate consumers about this scam includes online content, advertising and media appearances featuring renowned security expert and Fraud Watch Network Ambassador Frank Abagnale.

The Nuts and Bolts of the ‘Technical Support Scam’

Executing the scam via telephone, email or even pop-up ads, the phone caller informs a targeted person that a virus or some other security problem has been detected on the victim’s computer, and offers to easily make a repair. Instead, their goal is to gain control of the computer, access personal files and pass words, and obtain credit card information to charge the consumer for the supposed repair or a warranty program – which proves to be worthless.

“If you or someone you know receives a call or an email from someone identifying themselves as a technician with Microsoft, Google, Apple or some other well-known technology company, it is likely to be a scam. Just hang up the phone,” said Abagnale, in a statement. The large computer firms never make proactive calls or send email to provide unrequested technical support.”

Microsoft’s survey findings indicate that 20 percent of the people surveyed around the world continued with a potentially fraudulent interaction to their computer, visited a scam website, or even provided a credit card or other forms of payment, after the initial contract. This means that the victim downloaded harmful software, giving the scammers access to their computer.

Interestingly, the victims who continued to interacting with the scammers, half were millennials (ages 18 to 34), the technology savvy generation. Thirty four percent were ages 36 to 54 and 17 percent were age 55 or older.

Abagnale advises consumers never to give control of their computer to a third party, nor to provide a credit card number to pay for unsolicited repair services or warranty programs.

Don’t Let Your Guard Down

Adds AARP Rhode Island Director Kathleen Connell, “We’ve had an enthusiastic response to our multi-media Fraudwatch presentation. “Many older Rhode Islanders are relatively new to the online world and they are the most vulnerable. But anyone who lets his or her guard down can suffer enormously at the hands of online scammers. And by no means have criminals abandoned their old-fashioned tactic via the U.S. Mail and land-line phones. Our presentation is based on the perspective of former con artists and we include a copy of AARP’s Con-Artist’s Playbook, which reveals the nasty tricks of the trade.

“As we often say, people hear about scams in the media and think, ‘I would never fall for that.” Well, of course not. You just watched a news story warning the scam is active. It’s the one you haven’t heard about that can be fatal because the cons know exactly which emotional and psychological buttons to push.

“We’re most pleased by how volunteers have stepped up to take our training and become presenters,” Connell added. “We couldn’t manage the demand ourselves.”

“Most consumers don’t have the technical skills to know that their computer has been infected with malicious software, exposing them to widespread theft and fraud,” said Attorney General Peter Kilmartin. “A growing number of consumers make purchases, pay bills, or monitor bank account information online. Giving a thief access to that information is akin to inviting them into your house to take whatever they want.”

Kilmartin suggests the following tips from Microsoft to protect from these telephone tech support scams:

Do not purchase any unsolicited software or services.

Ask if there is a fee or subscription associated with the “service.” If there is, hang up.

Finally, Kilmartin urges Rhode Islanders to never give control of your computer to a third party unless you can confirm that it is a legitimate representative of a computer support team with whom you are already a customer. Immediately report the scam call to the Consumer Protection Unit at the Office of Attorney General at 401-274-4400 (Monday – Friday, 8:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.) or email at consumers@riag.ri.gov.

Any group interested in scheduling a Fraudwatch presentation can call the AARP state office at 401-248-2674 and speak with Outreach Director Darlene Reza Rossi. AARP also offers free scam alerts via smart phone or computer. You can learn more about Fraudwatch in Rhode Island and enroll in the Fraudwatch Network at http://www.aarp.org/rifraudwatch.

Defend Yourself Against IRS Scammers

Published in Woonsocket Call on March 27, 2016

With federal regulators reporting a surge in tax-related fraud schemes, the U.S. Internal Revenue Service and Rhode Island’s Division of Taxation are requiring new income tax filing requirements. The AARP Fraud Watch Network also gears up its efforts to protect consumers from Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Imposter Scams.

According to the U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS), an aggressive and sophisticated phone scam targeting taxpayers, including recent immigrants, is making its rounds throughout the nation. Here’s the scam. A caller claims to be employed by the IRS, but they are not. To be seen as legitimate the con artist uses a fake names and even rattle off a bogus IRS identification badge numbers. The caller ID may even be altered to make it look like the call is coming straight from the IRS. .

Usually victims are told they owe taxes to the IRS and it must be quickly paid through a pre-loaded debit card or wire transfer or they will suffer the consequences. If the victim refuses to cooperate with the federal agency, then they are threatened by the con artist with arrest, deportation or suspension of a business or driver’s license. In many cases, the caller becomes hostile and insulting. Victims may also be told they have a refund due to try to trick them into sharing private financial information. If the phone isn’t answered, the scammers often leave an “urgent” callback request.

Knowledge is Power over Scammers

To combat this growing problem, the AARP Fraud Watch Network gears up its educational campaign, with digital advertising featuring a new tip sheet and online video to combat the “IRS Imposter Scam.”

Our goal is to warn consumers and empower them with the knowledge they need to keep their family members from falling victim to the IRS imposters,” said Nancy LeaMond, Chief Advocacy & Engagement Officer, AARP. “Once they recognize certain red flags, they will be confident in resisting the aggressive bullying and scare tactics used by the scammers.”

The Fraud Watch Network campaign is advising consumers that legitimate IRS agents do not call and demand immediate payment. The IRS will not call about owed taxes without making contact by mail. The IRS will not require a taxpayer to use a specific payment method to make a tax payment, such as a prepaid debit card; or ask for credit or debit card numbers over the phone. Finally, the IRS will not threaten to bring in local police or other law-enforcement groups to have you arrested for not paying.

For more information about the IRS scam and other tax-related frauds, visit http://www.aarp.org/FraudWatchNetwork. Consumers who think that they are being targeted by a scammer may call the FWN helpline at 877-908-3360 and speak with a trained counselor.

Federal and State Efforts to Protect Tax Payers

The IRS, announces that many newly implemented safeguards are now in place that consumers may not even be aware of, but are invaluable in fighting against the stolen identify refund fraud. Many of these changes are designed to better authenticate the tax payer’s identity and validate the tax-return at the time of filing.

The most visible change is new password protections for private-sector ax software accounts. Newly implemented standards require a minimum 8-digit password using a combination of letters, numbers and special characters. There also will be new security questions, new lock-out features and new ways to verify emails.

IRS’s password standards are intended to help protect taxpayers from identity thieves who take over their software accounts and file fraudulent tax returns using their names and Social Security numbers.

In a January 19, 2016 Advisory for Tax Professionals, Rhode Island’s Division of Taxation is putting in processing safeguards to protect an estimated 600,000 Ocean State taxpayers. Acting Tax Administrator Neena S. Savage announced that this tax season all taxpayers and preparers who file electronically will be asked to enter a driver’s license number as part of the tax preparation process.

“This is another way to verify your identity and the validity of your return before the processing of the return is completed,” says Savage, noting that the new filing requirement for is part of a coordinated and collaborative effort among the states, the U.S. Internal Revenue Service, tax software providers, and others to help protect taxpayers from identity theft that may lead to tax refund fraud.

The requiring a taxpayers driver’s license is just “another layer of protection because identity thieves may already have your name and Social Security number, but perhaps not your driver’s license number,” says Savage, adding that this will assist states in matching driver’s license information with other identifying records to help confirm the filers identity.

“Tax software will prompt you for your driver’s license number. The information will be transmitted only in electronically filed returns; it will not appear on paper returns. It will also be safeguarded along with the rest of your tax return information,” adds Savage. The return will not be rejected if a taxpayer does not have a driver’s license number, or does have one
but does not provide it, she said.

New Phone app Fights IRS Phone Scam

With the April 18th Tax Day deadline fast approaching, Whitepages, a Seattle, Washington–based company releases an update for its ID app for Android that blocks suspected IRS scammers. The new Auto-Blocker automatically stops “IRS Imposter Calls” from reaching the user.

“Fraudulent phone scams are on the rise and, while some carriers and handset makers are starting to solve this problem, consumers need ways to educate and protect themselves,” said Jan Volzke, Vice President, Reputation Services at Whitepages. “While the IRS scam is far from the only unwanted call identified by our leading technology, it’s certainly top of mind this busy tax season. We want to help ease concern by making sure a large majority of those calls never reach their intended targets.”

Whitepages says, of the 300 million incoming calls that the company scans monthly in the U.S., more than 15 million are classified as “unwanted.” Last year, Whitepages identified the IRS scam as the number one type of scam call, with more than 1.2 million of these types of calls being made per month, accounting for at least 8 percent of all calls blocked by users. In addition, comparing February data from 2014 to 2016, IRS scam calls have grown exponentially, at nearly 2,500 percent over the past two years.

The new updated Whitepages ID app automatically blocks any incoming calls that have been identified by the company’s proprietary algorithms as being a known IRS scam number. The Alto-Blocker also includes the blocking of numbers that the IRS has officially flagged as suspicious.

While the Auto-Blocker stops IRS scam calls from ringing phones, users have the option to keep this auto feature on, or adjust the protection level based on type of call including: Scam or Fraud, Suspected Spam, Hidden Numbers, or International Numbers.

As scammers switch phone numbers in an effort to avoid detection, phone users will be alerted to popular or new area codes where scam calls are originating, so they can remain on the defense against numbers that may not yet have been blocked.

Finally, users can easily report IRS specific scam numbers back to Whitepages to be put on its block list.

Whitepage’s new app is free and available on GooglePlay.