As the nation prepares to observe Elder Abuse Awareness Month in May, Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) today introduced legislation to help protect vulnerable seniors from financial scams. The Senior Financial Empowerment Act of 2012 (H.R. 4846) will help stop abusive mail, telemarketing and Internet fraud targeting seniors.
"I became aware of the seriousness and scope of fraud targeting seniors when I helped my own grandmother in her later years," said Congresswoman Baldwin. "These crimes can have severe financial and emotional consequences for older Americans and their families. My bill will educate the public, seniors, their families, and their caregivers on how to identify and combat fraudulent activity," Baldwin said.
Although it is difficult to estimate the prevalence of fraud targeting seniors due to severe under-reporting, millions of senior Americans have fallen victim to financial exploitation, including mail, telemarketing and Internet fraud.
The Coalition of Wisconsin Aging Groups (CWAG) estimates that more than 38,000 seniors in Wisconsin were victims of financial exploitation in 2011. According to the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, the most common category of consumer complaint last year was telemarketing and the fastest rising category was identity theft, which can involve telephone, mail or Internet fraud.
The daughter of one such victim contacted Congresswoman Baldwin, desperate to stop fraudulent calls to her mother. Nina Kurt of Dane, Wisconsin reported that her elderly mother in Waunakee had been convinced by one caller to write a $3,000 check.
Fortunately, Nina's mother did not send that check, but the calls continued, some from as far away as Kingston, Jamaica. Nina believes that one aggressive scam artist sold her mother's phone number to others.
"How many elders are out there being preyed on by these people?" Nina asked. "These people are ruthless They don't give up. They haunt them with their calls I am told this is the type of harassment that elderly people have to put up with. Is there anything I can do to help make this stop?" Nina pleaded.
Baldwin's bill would help put a stop to mail, Internet, and telemarketing scams like those targeted at Nina Kurt's elderly mother. The Senior Financial Empowerment Act of 2012:
Creates a centralized service for consumer education on mail, telemarketing, and Internet fraud targeting seniors;
Authorizes the Attorney General to award competitive grants to carry out locally-focused mail, telemarketing, and Internet fraud prevention and education programs for seniors; and
Establishes a National Senior Fraud Awareness week to bring the issue to the public attention it warrants.
According to a 2009 report by the MetLife Mature Market Institute, the annual financial loss by victims of senior financial abuse is estimated to be at least $2.6 billion. In 2007, postal inspectors investigated almost 3,000 mail fraud cases in the U.S. and arrested more than 1,200 mail fraud suspects. Further, the FBI has confirmed that criminals are modifying their targeting techniques to include online scams such as "phishing" and e-mail spamming.
"Fraud targeting seniors, such as the 'Grandma scam', is particularly despicable," said John Hendrick, Attorney, CWAG Elder Financial Empowerment Project. "The Senior Financial Empowerment Act would provide much needed help for Wisconsin's older adults against the ever-changing variety of Internet, mail and telemarketing fraud. We applaud Congresswoman Baldwin's work on this issue because we need the tools to stop this epidemic," Hendrick said.
In a letter of support for the legislation, Robert Blancato, National Coordinator of the non-partisan, 705 member Elder Justice Coalition, called the bill a much-needed tool in the fight against elder abuse.
"Representative Baldwin is one of the foremost champions of elder justice in Congress," said Blancato. "Financial abuse, including the newest form, Internet abuse, costs seniors billions a year and must be addressed. Enacting this bill is one key solution," Blancato said.
In the last session of Congress, Baldwin's Senior Financial Empowerment Act was passed by the House, but the Senate did not take it up.