Sen. Chris Van Hollen and Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh visited Westminster on Monday, Dec. 2 as part of a tour around the state to talk about consumer protection from fraud and identity theft.
Coincidentally, the forum at the Westminster Senior & Community Center fell on Cyber Monday, though the officials have been traveling around the state for the past several months.
“Elder fraud has been called the crime of the 21st century,” Van Hollen said, “because it’s low-risk, it’s under-reported and it’s very hard to prosecute.”
One in five adults over 65 has been the victim of a financial scam, he said.
In a question-and-answer session, attendees touched on topics including robocalls, high-speed internet and opioids.
One person asked about internet access in Carroll County and how consumers could push for more competitive options.
Van Hollen said this is an issue in rural areas throughout the nation and communities are having to seek creative solutions. In the federal government, there is a bipartisan effort to expand funding for states to invest in broadband in rural areas.
Two others asked what can be done to increase deterrence, detection and punishment for robocall scams?
Frosh said they’re working with phone companies to better identify calls that are spoofing numbers. But when the calls are coming from outside the United States, it is complicated to track down the perpetrators and prosecute them.
Van Hollen spoke about the 2019 Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence Act (TRACED), which lawmakers hope will make telecommunications providers develop better tools to identify robocallers and increase penalties for violators who are caught.
Because of how difficult the cases are to prosecute, the focus has been on educating the public, he said.
Another asked the officials where they fell in the battle against opioid addiction problems. Frosh said that the state has been successful in prosecuting those who are caught trafficking drugs.
“We are also going after the folks who I think are responsible for the crisis itself, manufacturers, distributors and some of the retail sales of opioid medications,” he said.
The difference between this and the wave of lawsuits against tobacco manufacturers in the early 2000s is that opioid manufacturers and distributors have less resources.
“The money we expect to recover for Marylanders is not going to solve the crisis all by itself,” he said.
Van Hollen said on the federal level, there is a three-pronged approach to addressing the opioid crisis, through law enforcement, treatment and prevention.
Other questions regarded the regulation, or lack thereof, of propane sales and the difficulty of getting follow-through on student loan forgiveness for those who were promised it in exchange for 10 years in public service.
Throughout the forum, Frosh and Van Hollen concentrated a lot of time on robocalls and phone-based scams.
“Just hang up” on unsolicited calls, Frosh said. If the caller is legitimate, they will leave a message. If someone is asking for money in the form of gift cards or wire transfers, it is almost definitely a scam, he said, and you will not see that money ever again.
Scammers may impersonate the IRS, law enforcement, technical support and antivirus companies, charities or even loved ones. Van Hollen said the most common scams that impersonate charities claim to help veterans and cancer patients.
On average, an American household receives 250 unwanted calls per year.
Frosh also spoke about the possibility for Marylanders to put a “freeze” on their credit that may be able to prevent a fraudster from taking out credit even if they have a person’s social security number. A freeze can be especially valuable for minors, he said because if scammers get hold of a minor’s information, it may be years before the individual discovers the fraud.
Before the start of the event Monday, Carroll political activist Kathy Fuller stood outside the venue with a sign that said “Trump” and “MAGA” in large red letters speaking to people as they walked in. She said she came to the forum because she disagrees with Frosh’s use of taxpayer dollars to sue President Trump.
She also called the actions of Democrats in Congress “shameful,” regarding potential impeachment, “in order to denigrate the president.” She said “there is no evidence of any wrongdoing.” Van Hollen is a Democrat.
The House Judiciary Committee’s first hearing in the formal impeachment inquiry is scheduled for Wednesday. If the House votes to officially charge the president, proceedings would move to a trial in the Senate.
Representatives from the Carroll County Bureau of Aging & Disabilities were also present at Monday’s event to talk about The Long Term Care Ombudsman Program. Ombudsman serve as advocates for those in nursing homes or assisted living and sometimes intersect with perceived fraud complaints when those involve social services.
Bureau Chief Celene Steckel said the bureau hears about many instances of fraud or attempted fraud and attempts to help steer folks toward the appropriate agency.
Preventative education is an important part of the equation and they partner with the Carroll County State’s Attorney’s Office investigators to host seminars on fraud and prevention.
The Health Education and Advocacy Unit of the Maryland Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division handles problems related to health insurance, health care billing and enrollment. They can be reached at 410-528-1840 or 877-261-8807 or www.marylandcares.org.
The Consumer Protection Division’s Mediation Unit handles personal, household residential and agricultural transactions. Frosh said they receive 30-40 thousand calls per year and though they cannot file suit in every case, they mediate thousands of those problems per year. The unit can be reached at 410-528-8662.