Aging Panel Looks into Debit Card Scams

Published in Pawtucket Times, November 21, 2014

The U.S. Special Committee on Aging continues to direct its investigative spotlight on phone scams involving reloadable prepaid debit card.  Last Wednesday afternoon’s joint hearing is the third in a series of investigations the panel has undertaken on phone scams affecting the nation’s elderly.

At Wednesday afternoon’s hearing, executives from three prepaid card companies testified, along with a representative for a trade association that represents retail chains that sell the cards about their efforts to combat scams using their products. Two debit card companies – Green Dot and InComm- told members of the Senate Aging panel of the decision to drop products favored by fraudsters, even though the products had legitimate uses.  Although the third company, Blackhawk, did not drop products, it tightened up its security measures on its similar reloadable debit card product.

Putting a Light on Common Scams

Last year, the Senate Aging panel took a look at Jamaican lottery schemes, which the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) resulted in an estimated $300 million in losses for victims in 2011.  Following this hearing, another hearing examined the rise of grandparent scams in which a fraudster takes on the role of a grandchild or law enforcement officer to trick seniors into sending money to get their grandchildren out of jail.  In both incidences, scammers routinely instructed seniors to send them money via reloadable prepaid debit cards.

At the Nov. 19 Aging hearing, Chairman Bill Nelson (D-FL), of the Senate Special Committee on Aging, acknowledged that it is difficult to stop fraud against seniors, but “we are chipping away on it.”  He reported that federal legislation, “Phone Scam Prevention Act of 2014”cosponsored with Senator Joe Donnelly (D-IN), was introduced that day to make it easier for persons to actually know who is calling them, and give them the tools to protect themselves against fraud.

Adds, Ranking Minority Member Susan M. Collins (R-Maine), a common theme emerging from the Senate Aging panel’s hearings on senior scams is the use of prepaid debit cards. “Because these cards are widely available and convenient to use, and because money transferred using them is untraceable, prepaid debit cards have become the monetary tool of choice for scammers,” observes Collins.

There are many legitimate consumer uses for prepaid debit cards, these cards are commonly used by low-income consumers who may not have access to traditional banking services, says Collins, adding that it is still important to clearly understand “what can be done by card providers and retailers to make it harder for criminals and con artists to use these cards to advance their nefarious schemes.”

Adds Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a member of the Aging panel, “Seniors are too often targets of phone scams that rely on pre-paid debit cards or wire transfers.  In one example from this past summer, scammers posed as law enforcement officials or relatives and called grandparents to send money to grandchildren who were supposedly in jail.  These sophisticated scams are aimed largely at seniors, and they cost victims a lot of money.  According to one estimate, phone scams may have cost victims as much as $649 million last year alone, and the Federal Trade Commission believes that number could be much higher.”

“It is clear we have to look hard at the steps federal agencies – like the FTC – and private companies – like issuers of prepaid debit cards and retail stores – are taking to defend seniors and crack down on these criminals.  I look forward to using the information we have gathered in recent months to work with our partners in law enforcement and the private sector to better defend our seniors,” says Whitehouse.

From the AG’s Office

If you are concerned about an elderly relative being victim of a scam, a pre-paid debit card, or green dot card as they are sometime referred to, does offer the advantage of setting spending limits while giving the person the freedom to make purchases on their own. Unfortunately, there is downside.  If a person falls victim to a scam that utilizes a pre-paid debit card, there is no recourse with the financial institution to get the money back,” said Attorney General Peter Kilmartin. “Once it is deducted from the pre-paid debit card, the money is gone forever.”

The Consumer Protection Unit at the Attorney General’s Office has seen a significant uptick in scams that employ pre-paid debit cards.  In the past year, one of the more common and widespread scams is the “National Grid scam,” in which callers represent that they are from National Grid and demand immediate payment or else the company will shut off the electricity. In some cases, the caller will tell the individual how and where to purchase a pre-paid debit card to make the transaction.

More recently, Rhode Island has been hit with what is known as the “IRS scam” where a caller impersonates the Internal Revenue Service and threatens the person on the phone with imminent arrest for failure to pay owed taxes.  Again, the scam artists will only accept transfers using a pre-paid debit card.

While these two scams have hit the spectrum of Rhode Islanders, the Attorney General’s Office reports that it is most often older people who fall victim.  “Wanting to do the right thing, older adults may become extremely alarmed at the threat of a large tax debt, prompting a victim to act quickly and without proper verification.  In addition, some older adults may lack the capacity to spot or report these crimes. Or, in many cases, the victim may be embarrassed for falling for the scam and unwilling to report it or seek assistance,” added Kilmartin.

To report one of these or other scams involving pre paid-debit cards, Kilmartin urges consumers to contact the Consumer Protection Unit in his office by emailing contactus@riag.ri.gov.  “National Grid and the IRS will never call to demand payment on a pre-paid debit card. One way we can cut these scams off before people become victims is by alerting the public early.  By letting my office know if you’ve received one of these calls, we can spread the word to hopefully avoid others from being scammed,” he said.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket writer who covers aging, health care and medical issues.  He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.

 

Being Vigilant Keeps Phone Scammers Away

Published in Pawtucket Times, July 18, 2014

When 81-year-old Cincinnati resident Roger W. answered a call in December, he thought it was his grandson on the other end of the phone. The young voice said, Grandpa, this you’re your favorite grandson,” he remembered, replying, “I have six grandsons and they are all my favorites.” Claiming to be the oldest, the “grandson” said he had been arrested for speeding and drug possession and urgently needed money for bail. He then turned the call over to a person claiming to be a police officer. Convinced their eldest grandson needed help, Roger W. and his wife headed to a local retail store to purchase a money-order card to cover the cost of bail.

After sending a total of $7,000 to the supposed police officer, the elderly couple soon discovered they had been conned out of their hard-earned money after reaching their real grandson on his cell phone. They are among an untold number of older Americans who have fallen victim to a commonly used scam known as the “grandparent scam” that experts say is again making a comeback across the nation.

Senate Aging Hearing Puts the Spotlight on Phone Scams

Roger W., who has requested anonymity to avoid becoming a target of other con-artists, testified two days ago at a hearing of the U..S. Senate Special Committee on Aging held at the Senate Dirksen building. The hearing examined the recent rise in imposter scams, particularly the grandparent scam.

Along with Roger W., witnesses at the July 16th hearing included officials from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the United States Telecom Association, who discussed potential solutions to protecting consumers and curbing phone scams.

According to the FTC, Americans lost more than $73 million to impostor scams in 2013. While the federal agency admits the figure is under reported, accounting for only a fraction of the problem because most victims fail to report the crime, instances of imposter scams have doubled between 2009 and 2013. Senators Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Susan Collins (R-ME), the committee’s chairman and ranking member, called for this hearing after receiving a large number of complaints from victims through the committee’s fraud hotline. The two lawmakers said they’re hoping the hearing will help identify potential solutions to help law enforcement to better detect and prosecute such crimes, as well as encourage retailers and phone companies to do their part to protect consumers.

Phone Scams Commonly Reported in Rhode Island

According to the Rhode Island Office of the Attorney General, the Ocean State is not immune to the financial scam, described at the recent Senate Aging hearing by Roger W. There are slight variations of the “grandparent scam” story where con artists pretend to be a family member and claim they need money to fix a car, get out of jail or leave a foreign country. They will beg you to wire money right away and keep the information confidential. In some cases, the scammers even know the names of family members. In other instances, the person on the other end of the line may pretend to be a police officer or friend calling on behalf of the grandchild.

In 2013, the Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Unit responded to 6,229 telephone calls, 1,144 written complaints, 1,534 email inquiries and 74 walk-ins. While the Consumer Protection Unit does not keep statistics on each scam that is reported, the grandparent scam is no stranger to the employees

“We see a spike in these types of scams during times when a grandchild might be on vacation, like school break or summers, making the story more believable to the person on the other end of the phone,” said Attorney General Peter Kilmartin. The Attorney General’s Office includes a Consumer Protection Unit, which, among other responsibilities, warns the public about such scams and educates consumers on how to protect themselves from being a victim of a scam, he says.

Kilmartin observes that “Con artists have turned fraud into a multi-billion dollar business. Each year, thousands of consumers lose anywhere from a few dollars to their life savings to scams. Once the money is gone, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to recover your funds,” he notes.

There are big hurdles law enforcement must overcome to catch the scammer who is behind these cons. If a scam originated out of the state, or even out of the country, it is often beyond the reach of local or state law enforcement officials, adds Kilmartin. . Complicating matters is technology, he says, noting that long gone are the days when people’s locations could be easily identified and tracked by their phone number. With cellular technology, pre-paid cell phones and “spoofing” apps, a person may be running their con from a foreign country while your caller ID shows an in-state phone number, he says.

AG’s Top Priority to Protect Consumers Against Fraud and Scams

“As Attorney General, it is one of my top priorities to protect all consumers from fraud and scams. Consumer protection is largely self protection. Becoming a smart and savvy consumer does not mean changing your daily routine — it means becoming more aware of how to avoid becoming a victim. As the saying goes, knowledge is power. It is  my belief that consumers and businesses can better protect themselves and their assets if they are aware of their rights and are aware of the fraudulent or deceptive practices scammers use,” said Kilmartin.

Tammy Miller, Director of the Consumer Protection Unit, said the reason that scamming older persons is so prevalent is because it works. “Sadly, con artists prey on older people because they tend to be more trusting. Once the money is wired, it’s gone forever, and it’s only then people realize they have been a victim of the scam. Because these outfits operate outside the state, and often outside the country, there is little law enforcement can do to track them down,” she says.

According to Miller, Attorney General Kilmartin has made educating consumers a priority. As such, members of the Consumer Protection Unit provide approximately 150 outreach presentations each year to senior centers, community groups and organizations throughout the state in an effort to educate and protect Rhode Islanders from scam artists.

In addition, several consumer alerts/advisories are issued annually. The advisories cover a wide range of topics such as fake invoices, phishing scams, a fake jury duty and arrest scam, a “car wrap” scam, possible scams related to sporting events, consumer settlements and holiday shopping tips.

“Although it is very difficult to measure, I believe our consumer outreach program has made a difference in lowering the number of victims of scams in Rhode Island. A good indicator is the increase in phone calls we receive from consumers alerting us whenever a scam pops up, which gives us a chance to get ahead of it, issue an alert and warn other consumers. I think that’s a positive sign that we are making headway and creating confident and well informed consumers,” said Miller.

Miller says that Kilmartin has done a terrific job as Attorney General in making the public aware of scams that are going around the state, which reduces the chances of someone else becoming a victim.”

Quick Actions to Protect Yourself Against Phone Scams

So, what do you do if you receive a phone call from someone pretending to be a family member in need? Miller recommends that you first verify that it is your grandchild. Always ask for a phone number of the person on the other line. Before calling them back or wiring them money, contact the family member directly. If you cannot get a hold of them, contact their parents or another family member to confirm their location.

Miller warns older persons to resist the intense pressure to send money quickly and secretly. Refuse to send money through wire transfer or overnight delivery. After you’ve thwarted the scam, Tammy Miller suggests you let your local police and the Consumer Protection Unit know about the call. Alerting the Attorney General’s Office will allow them to alert the public that the scam is making the rounds and what to be on the lookout for.

To report a consumer-related issue, to speak with a consumer protection specialist at the Attorney General’s Office, or to schedule a consumer protection specialist to speak before your community group or organization, call 401-274-4400, send an email at contactus@riag.ri.gov, or visit http://www.riag.ri.gov.

To watch the Senate U.S. Special Committee on Aging hearing and to access witness testimony, go to http://www.aging.senate.gov/hearings/-hanging-up-on-phone-scams-progress-and-potential-solutions-to-this-scourge.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket-based writer covering aging, health care and medical issues. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.