Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, has served in the Senate since 1997 and has chaired the Senate Special Committee on Aging since last January. In that role, she has held multiple hearings on scams aimed at seniors and retirees. We spoke about those scams — the new ones and the old ones. This has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: What is the Senate Special Committee on Aging doing to fight these scams aimed at seniors and retirees?
A: We're continuing to investigate scams that are targeting seniors and our retirees. We established a toll-free fraud hotline [1-855-303-9470]. It received an astonishing 1,100 calls last year from all 50 states. Sometimes there are calls from seniors asking us about scams that they have been approached with and ask what they should do. Other times it is calls from seniors alerting us that there are new scams out there. Other times there are calls from seniors telling us how they have lost thousands of dollars as a result of scams.
We try to help them by connecting them to local law enforcement or the [Federal Trade Commission]. In one case, we were able to act quickly enough that we were able to get the bank to stop the money transfer. In another case, we were able to get law enforcement involved in time that they made arrests.
In the case of one infamous scam, the Jamaica lottery scam, the most frequent one, the Department of Justice prosecuted a Jamaican and had him extradited. He got 20 years. The U.S. has had the Jamaican government crack down on these con artists operating from boiler rooms in Jamaica.
Q: What are the newest scams aimed at seniors and retirees?
A: One is the IRS imposter scam. That is especially prevalent this time of the year. Last year we received 387 calls on the IRS imposter scam. In that case, a con artist pretends that they are an IRS agent and falsely accuses seniors of owing back taxes and penalties and demands immediate payment through money orders or cards that are available at drugstores. What's really pernicious about these scams is the con artists have figured out how to get around caller ID and spoof the telephone number of the Treasury Department. If the phone rings in your house and you have caller ID, it will say the U.S. Treasury Department. People will pick up the phone and believe it is a legitimate call. It makes the National Do Not Call Registry a woefully inadequate means of protection.
Q: Discuss some of the other scams.
A: One is the computer technical support scam. A senior will receive a call from someone who pretends to be from Microsoft or Dell or some other computer company telling them that their computer has been infected with a virus and they need information in order to solve the problem. What they do is trick the consumer into giving them the codes. They walk them through the process. They get access to the consumer's computer. Then they do one of two things.
They say we fixed the virus and you owe us. If the senior says we don't have that much money, they give them a senior citizen discount. In the other case, they will plant a virus that, if the senior is using online banking, can gain access to their passwords and their financial accounts and will try to steal money by impersonating the senior's computer.
We held a hearing on that. Microsoft is working hard to try to fight that kind of scam and let people know they will not receive phone calls from Microsoft saying that you have a virus and demanding payment to fix it. That's a new one. We didn't know that one was out there until we started getting calls.
Q: What about the grandparent scam? Is that one still prevalent?
A: That is a perennial one. I was almost a victim of this one a few years ago. In this case what happens is a senior will get an email that appears to be from a grandchild. In my case, it appeared to be from my nephew. It says the grandchild is overseas and has been robbed and lost all their money, airplane ticket home and passport. It is a sob story that sounds very authentic. It really sounded like it was from one of my nephews. Rather than wiring him money, which was the request, I told him to go to the American embassy and get help, including a new passport. Mine wasn't a very sympathetic reply. I started thinking about it and didn't think he was overseas and called his father. It was a very convincing email. And that scam has been going on for years. But it keeps appearing.
Q: Talk about some of the other most popular scams.
A: One that is still popular is the home improvement scam. Then there's the romance scam, where a person develops a relationship by calling regularly and then asks for money to buy an airplane ticket to come see the person. That's sad because it's usually lonely seniors living alone that fall victim to those scams.
Q: What's your best advice for helping people avoid these scams?
A: The fact that we received more than 1,000 calls shows how valuable it is to publicize these scams. The more we can prevent people from falling victim to these scams, the better.
My advice to seniors is that if they have any concerns about whether a call they get seeking money is legitimate, they should not send the money. And most of those calls are scams. If they have any concerns or questions, call our fraud hotline or their local police department. Or talk with their adult children or the AARP. Don't send money and find out later that you regret it.
Secondly, if adult children who have access to their parent's checking accounts start seeing unusual withdrawals, they should ask questions. The state of Maine has a program called the Senior Safe program that trains bank tellers and credit union tellers to look for unusual withdrawals from seniors' accounts. We are trying to get through federal legislation that would do something similar on a national level.
There's the old adage — if it sounds too good to be true, it probably isn't true. If you won a lottery that you haven't entered, beware.