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.”

Rhode Islanders Share ’16 Resolutions

Published in Woonsocket Call on January 3, 2016

 

Each New Year, on January 1, we make promises to ourselves to start doing something good or stop doing something bad, either way on a personal and/or professionally level. Here’s a listing of Rhode Islanders, many who you may know, who reflect on their successes of keeping last year’s resolutions and they even share their 2016 New Year Resolutions, too.

Ernie Almonte, 60, Partner at RSM, LLP and former candidate for Rhode Island Treasurer.  The Scituate resident’s 2015 resolution was to find a firm with a “great work culture.”  Did he succeed? Yes, “wildly beyond his expectations,” he says. For his 2016 New Year’s Resolution, he plans to create a great future for his family.

Jonathan Bissonnette, 28, a reporter covering the Pawtucket Beat for the Pawtucket Times. In 2015, the journalist looked to cut back on junk food from fast food restaurants.  He did not succeed.  For this year, he repeats last year’s resolution and continues to look for ways to improve his nutrition.  He again looks to stay away from fast food restaurants.

Rep. David N. Cicilline, 54, representing Rhode Island’s First Congressional District.  Last year, the lawmaker backed legislation that helps create jobs and grow the economy and worked to ensure that government was “fair and more efficient” for his constituents  He was successful in enacted that strengthens America’s manufacturing sector, a bill that renamed a local post office for the late Sister Ann Keefe, provisions in the new education legislation that enhance after school partnerships across the nation, and ensuring Rhode Island receives funding for infrastructure as part of the new multi-year federal highway funding bill fund. This coming year Cicilline looks to curb the skyrocketing costs prescription and education.  He will also focus his attention on fixing the broken campaign finance system and making our communities safer from gun violence.

Scott Davis, 58, owner of Rhode Island Antiques Mall and an Entrepreneur.  The Providence resident worked last year to “eliminate stressors” in his life.  Did he succeed?  “Mostly,” he responded. For 2016, Davis says he will “figure out how to make a living once stressors are eliminated.”

Linda Dewing, ageless, is a broker associate at Places & and Spaces Realty and a seasoned artist.  The Pawtucket resident’s 2015 New Year’s Resolution was “to grow in business and wisdom.”  When asked if she succeeded, Dewing responded “somewhat.”  For next year, 2016 she plans to finish two pieces of art work and continue to contribute to Pawtucket’s growth by bringing more businesses into the City’s historic downtown.

Josh Fenton, 52, CEO and Co-Founder of GoLocal24.  Last year Fenton made a resolution to get up earlier in the morning to be more productive. The Providence resident believes he generally succeed by getting up by 4:45 a.m. “I saw a lot of good sunrises,” he says.  For 2016, his New Year Resolution is to spend more time with close family and friends.

Charlie Fogarty, 60, is the Director of the Rhode Island Division of Elderly Affairs.  Last year the Glocester resident resolved to be mindful of his health and wellness. .He made small lifestyle changes, such as adding a 30-minute walk to each day, resulting in improved health. In the New Year he resolves to promote physical, social, and mental well-being. He says healthy lifestyles for seniors, supported by family, friends, caregivers and the community enables these individuals to remain at home.

Attorney General Peter Kilmartin, 53, Office of the Attorney General.  When asked about his 2015 resolutions he responds “I typically don’t make New Year’s resolutions, as I try to work on improving myself throughout the year.”  For 2016, he says, “I will try to work on improving myself and the Office of Attorney General each and every day.  Every morning I read a spiritual piece which is aimed at recognizing not only what is good in our lives, but also how to keep a positive attitude and improve our lives.  It is my goal to continue this practice each day for 2016.”

Nicholas A. Mattiello, 52, is a self-employed Cranston attorney who serves as Speaker of the House in the Rhode Island General Assembly.  Last year the lawmaker resolved to pass a State budget that would include an exemption from the State income tax for many Social Security recipients.  “Retirees have worked their whole lives and do not deserve to be taxed on Social Security,” he said.  He was pleased to see his chamber pass the budget unanimously, and the Governor sign into law.  For the upcoming year, his resolution is to continue to work hard in improving the State’s economy and job climate.  “I want to see the economic momentum we have built-in the last few years continue to grow and to make Rhode Island once again competitive with other states in the region,” he says.

Edward M. Mazze, 74, Distinguished University Professor of Business Administration, at University of Rhode Island.  In 2015, the Narragansett resident’s New Year’s resolution was to lose weight (become more healthy) and be more optimistic about Rhode Island’s Economic Growth.  He believes that he succeeded.  In 2016, he is looking to continue losing weight and hopes to be more patient with Rhode Island’s Economic Growth.

Lt. Governor Daniel J. McKee, 64, a former Mayor of Cumberland who served 6 terms.  Last year he resolved “to be champion of the family’s annual holiday ping-pong tournament.  “Let’s just say there’s a next year,” he says.  As to 2016 resolutions, McKee says, “While many people are resolving to hit the gym and lose weight, I want to build on my “39 Cups of Coffee” tour (one in every city and town) and support our economy by dining at as many local restaurants as I can.“

John J. Partridge, 75, is Senior Counsel at Partridge Snow & Hahn, LLP.  In 2015, the Providence resident worked “on patience.”  When asked if he succeed, Partridge responded “impatiently yes.”  For 2016, the lawyer who has published three murder mystery thrillers plans on publishing his fourth Algy Temple mystery, “Hanger.”

Governor Gina Raimondo, 44, is the highest elected state official in Rhode Island.  Last year the governor’s resolution was to “bring Rhode Islanders together to grow our economy.”  It’s too early to make judgements if she has succeed, says Raimondo, but the signs of improvement are there.  She resolves to come back in January, “re-energized to keep fighting for Rhode Islanders.

“There are crucial challenges ahead, including our under-performing schools, and our crumbling roads and bridges. We’ve just got to keep the momentum going with more work, more action, and more results,” she says.

Scott Rotondo, 42, is the Accounting Manager at Tivoli Audio in Boston, Massachusetts and a radio talk show host.  The Pawtucket resident’s 2015 resolution was to challenge his own assumptions and opinions.  He believes he “mostly succeeded.”  For the upcoming year his New Year’s Resolution is “to be more patient with others and with myself.”

Ron St. Pierre, over 21, is the Morning Drive host for News radio 920/I Heart Media.

The East Greenwich resident’s 2015 resolution was “to make it to 2016.  Was he successful?  He responds, “to be determined by making it to January 1, 2016.   This year’s New Year Eve’s resolution is “to make it to 2017.”

Charles Steinberg, 57, President of PawSox, at McCoy Stadium.  The baseball executive’s 2015 resolution was to help the Boston Red Sox “enhance bonds with fans through experiences and events at the ballpark and outreach to the community.  Did he feel he succeed?  “I hope so, but the fans are the best judge of that.”  As to this year’s New Year resolution, he hopes to help the PawSox, Pawtucket’s AAA Team bond with its fans by giving them great, memorable experiences and events at the ball park and to reach out to the community.

To all my loyal readers, may you have a Happy New Year and a great 2016.

 

 

 

Aggressive Scams Popping Up All Around the Ocean State

Published in Woonsocket Call on November 25, 2015

On Thursday morning, Mary Smith (not her real name) received a phone call from Sergeant Bradley from the Washington County Sheriff’s Office claiming she had missed jury duty and because so, there was a warrant issued for her arrest. Concerned, the older woman asked the man, who identified himself Sergeant Bradley, what she needed to do to fix the problem. She was instructed to go to a local CVS, purchase a pre paid debit card in the amount of $300 and to meet him in the parking lot of the Washington County Courthouse.

Thinking quick, Mary reported the troubling call to her local police. Like many older Rhode islanders, she had been a target of an aggressive scam now sweeping through the Ocean State, called the “jury duty scam.”

According to the Attorney General’s Office, in the latest rendition of the scam, an individual is calling Rhode Islanders claiming there is a warrant out for their arrest for failure to appear for jury duty. The individual, identifying himself as “Sergeant Bradley,” from either the “Washington County Sheriff’s Office,” the “South County Sheriff’s Office,” or the “Newport County Sheriff’s Office.” The caller ID shows the individual is calling from the 401 area code.

Here’s the scam

“Sergeant Bradley” tells the people he calls that they will be charged with a felony for failure to appear for jury duty and will then be held at the ACI for 30 days, after which they will be brought before Judge Suttell.

In order to avoid being arrested the scammer urges the individual to make an immediate payment using a pre-paid debit card. Mary did not fall for this old scam. It has been reported that at least one person paid more than $900 before they realized they were tricked.

Attorney General Peter Kilmartin calls on anyone receiving a similar phone call or threat to contact either the Rhode Island State Police to report the incident. Kilmartin says, “The individual making these phone calls has just enough information to make themselves sound legitimate.” This information, however, is readily available on the Internet to anyone with access to a computer, he notes.

“It is very important for anyone who receives a similar phone call to write down as much information as possible, don’t provide any personal information to the individual over the telephone, do not pay any money, hang up, and contact the State Police,” adds Kilmartin.

The state’s Office of Attorney General provides the following details about judicial process to keep Rhode Islanders from becoming a victim of the “jury duty scam.”
• Neither the Jury Commissioner nor the Rhode Island Sheriff’s Department makes telephone calls to prospective jurors threatening arrest or demanding that a fine be paid or a bond posted. If a juror who has been legitimately summoned in writing fails to appear, the Jury Commissioner will attempt to make contact and arrange to reschedule his or her service.

• Sheriffs in Rhode Island are a division of the Rhode Island Department of Public Safety and primarily work with the Courts. Unlike most other states, Rhode Island does not have sheriff departments based in counties. Each city and town has its own local police department.

Constant Vigilance Key to Fighting Scams

According to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission list of top consumer fraud complaints last year, more than 6,200 Rhode Island residents were victims of imposter scams.

“These latest Rhode Island scams underscored the need for constant vigilance,” observed AARP Rhode Island State Director Kathleen Connell. “We like to remind people that when people hear about a scam, the first reaction often is ‘I’d never fall for that.’ Well, maybe that’s because you just read about it in the news. People need to remember that they are most susceptible to the fresh scam no one is talking about that comes out of the blue.”

AARP’s Fraud Watch Network, Connell said, is one way to keep current. If you register for the free service you can receive alerts via smart phone or your computer when a new scam surfaces. You also can report a scam going around your neighborhood that is shared across the network, she added. If you’re not connected to the Internet, you can receive alerts and tips via a quarterly newsletter mailed to homes (Lean more and sign up at http://www.fraudwatchnetwork.org).

“Identity theft and fraud costs seniors billions of dollars nationally – in most cases, money that has been set aside for retirement, “Connell noted. “Impersonating police officers, federal agents or financial service companies, scammers use their “authority” to scare a person into paying them. Or, they pretend to be a friend or loved one in trouble who needs money.

“We’re committed to fighting back,” Connell declared, noting that one recent effort was a “reverse boiler room” operation.

In September, Connell and AARP Rhode Island volunteers Alan Neville of Cumberland and Carlo Gamba of West Greenwich met up in Boston with more than 50 others. Borrowing a favorite tactic the con artists’ playbook, AARP Fraud Watch Network staff and volunteers from New England and New York operated their own telemarketing boiler room. Instead of hearing from scammers, local residents received tips and information on how to protect themselves from imposter scams.

Strong Connections Protect Seniors from Scams

“Friends and family are key partners in protecting senior citizens from financial exploitation,” remarked Elderly Affairs Director Charles Fogarty. “Isolation is a major reason that people get victimized, so ensuring that senior citizens living in the community have strong connections to family and friends helps to protect them from scams and exploitation.”

The Department of Elderly Affairs (DEA) monitors fraud and scam reports from a number of sources, and distributes those notices to a network of approximately 500 partners in the community. If the victim of a scam is referred to DEA, they immediately contact the Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Unit. DEA does not investigate instances of scams perpetrated by strangers, but does investigate financial exploitation of an older adult by family or acquaintances.