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Our View: Seniors need to protect themselves from the ‘crime of the 21st century’

Only about 1 in 3 Carroll countians who voted in the past two general elections gave their support to Sen. Chris Van Hollen (2016) or Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh (2018). But regardless of anyone’s political leanings, the two came to Carroll County on Monday for a forum armed with useful information and we hope local seniors paid attention.

Van Hollen and Frosh visited Westminster as part of a tour around the state to talk about consumer protection from fraud and identity theft. The forum at the Westminster Senior & Community Center featured a question-and-answer format and numerous topics were touched upon — including high-speed internet access and opioids abuse — but they kept returning to the theme of warning seniors about the dangers of and potential for fraud and identity theft.

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“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. 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.

It can happen to anyone.

Earlier this year, the FBI held a news conference with Attorney General William Barr announcing that an operation designed to nab and prosecute those who commit fraud by preying on the elderly had resulted in criminal cases against more than 260 defendants who victimized more than 2 million Americans, most of them seniors. Their losses are estimated at more than $700 million. The targeted federal efforts were set in motion in 2017 with the enactment of the Elder Abuse Prevention and Prosecution Act, which included enhanced penalties for telemarketers who target or victimize people over age 55.

One of those who spoke at the news conference was former FBI Director William Webster. Now 95, Webster said he and his wife had been victimized in 2014, when a caller told them they had won millions of dollars and a new car but needed to pay thousands of dollars to cover shipping and handling. Death threats followed when the Websters didn’t immediately agree to pay. “The people involved are vulnerable, and because of their stage in life, they don’t have the opportunity frequently to recover,” Barr said.

On Monday, Van Hollen noted 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. On average, an American household receives 250 unwanted calls per year.

“Just hang up” on unsolicited calls, Frosh said, giving the sound advice that 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. 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.

Representatives from the Carroll County Bureau of Aging & Disabilities were also at Monday’s event. Bureau Chief Celene Steckel said they often hear of fraud or attempted fraud and steer victims 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.

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Learn from those who’ve been victimized, be wary of callers and protect yourself against scammers.

The Consumer Protection Division’s Mediation Unit can be reached at 410-528-8662. More information about Van Hollen’s consumer protection outreach is available at vanhollen.senate.gov.

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