Protections for scammed seniors proposed

U.S. Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., appears at a news conference in Watertown on April 8, 2021, alongside local leaders and representatives from the Office of the Aging, to address a policy package meant to lower prescription drug prices. Kara Dry/Watertown Daily Times

WASHINGTON — Billions of dollars are stolen from thousands of seniors each year, through scams and fraud that target older Americans.

On Thursday, the Senate Special Committee on Aging heard testimony from government officials, experts and a scam survivor about the impacts of fraud and scams on seniors during the pandemic. Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said that testimony has highlighted the need for real solutions to senior-focused scams.

“We heard about how con artists have targeted older adults during the COVID pandemic, we heard from experts about the ways scammers are using anxiety and uncertainty surrounding the pandemic to prey on older adults,” Sen. Gillibrand said in a news conference Thursday afternoon.

The senator said Federal Trade Commission experts have shared with her how these scams are extraordinarily difficult to trace, and how difficult it can be to provide seniors with up-to-date information to protect themselves.

With 1 in 6 New Yorkers classified as older adults, Sen. Gillibrand said, state residents face at least $1.5 billion in losses a year. Over the last 18 months, pandemic-related scams have taken at least $550 million from the wallets of New Yorkers.

Anyone can be impacted, including state Attorney General Letitia A. James, who shared with Sen. Gillibrand that her own mother had been defrauded of $20,000 by a woman who claimed she had won a sweepstakes and needed important financial information to make the deposits.

“Stories like hers are far too common,” Sen. Gillibrand said.

Paul L. Caccamise, vice president of programming for Lifespan in Rochester, said that in the 20 years his organization has been working to educate and combat senior-focused scams, he’s seen a wide range of impacts on victims, from financial losses to deep depression, anxiety, lost homes and even suicide.

He cited the 2020 report of the Senate Special Committee on Aging, colloquially called the Fraud Book, which found that older Americans lost nearly $3 billion to scammers in 2020.

“I imagine that is really an underestimate of the total amount, because so many cases aren’t reported,” he said.

Mr. Caccamise said Lifespan has seen romance scams — in which a scammer poses as a potential romantic interest and asks for money from someone they’ve emotionally manipulated — have become especially common amid the social isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Loneliness is a major vulnerability for fraud and scams, especially romance scams,” he said.

Sen. Gillibrand warned that while COVID-19-related scams have been common as the pandemic has dominated the news, other scams are still around and of concern. As the holidays approach, scams become more common, and con artists are constantly changing their methods to evade authorities.

Sen. Gillibrand and Sen. Susan M. Collins, R-Maine, have introduced a bill that would provide a more solid ground on which consumer protection advocates and agencies could stop scammers before they start and protect seniors from already circulating scams.

Called the Senior Financial Empowerment Act, the legislation would set up programs to spread information on a much wider and faster basis about scams in circulation, and establish a national hotline for information on how to report fraud.

The bill would also standardize and strengthen the various state and regional reporting systems into one national fraud reporting system, which would allow authorities easier access to reports and speed up investigations.

Sen. Gillibrand said she has also pushed the FTC to prioritize addressing senior-focused scams, and this week she sent a letter to the FTC’s leadership asking them to outline their plans to share fraud reports with the appropriate authorities and require financial institutions to communicate with their customers about scams.

“They also need to see better cross-government coordination in this area,” Sen. Gillibrand said. “I asked the FTC for more information on their plans to improve collaboration between agencies like the Department of Justice, Health and Human Services, the postal service and the Internet Crime Complaint Center.”

Mr. Caccamise said the bill, if passed, would make it much easier for agencies like Lifespan to do their jobs and protect seniors, and said it’s an important step in the right direction.

“Lifespan applauds the sponsors of this bill, and supports it’s passage for the protection of older Americans, not just their finances but their wellbeing,” he said.

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