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Amy Klobuchar: Eliminate fraud on seniors

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For Duluth resident Peggy Hiestand-Harri, it all started when her mother received repeated phone calls promising a Mercedes Benz that would be shipped to her if she would first wire money to Jamaica. Over time these criminals were able to learn more about her mother’s assets and convinced her to max out multiple credit cards.

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In the end, Peggy’s mother was robbed out of $47,000 and left with little chance to bring these crooks to justice or get her money back.

Unfortunately, we are seeing these types of crimes happen all too often. In fact, statistics show that roughly one in five seniors have already been victims of fraud or financial abuse. These crimes harm seniors and cost them billions of dollars each year. According to a MetLife Study on Financial Elder Abuse, in just three years annual losses from elder financial fraud increased 12 percent to nearly $3 billion in 2010.

Minnesota will soon see a “silver tsunami” as our population continues to age. By 2020, there will be more Minnesotans over 65 than children in public schools, and by 2035, Minnesota’s population over age 65 will more than double, as will our population 85 and older. If we don’t take action, these scams will only continue to increase.

That’s why I recently introduced legislation with Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine to crack down on fraud targeting seniors. The Senior Fraud Protection Act would provide seniors the tools they need to identify and avoid scams before it’s too late, and it would streamline our system to ensure complaints are handled effectively and given to the appropriate law enforcement agency so that quick action can be taken to bring criminals to justice.

My bill would also increase coordination between the agencies charged with protecting consumers and law enforcement. It requires the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to monitor the market and identify fraud schemes targeting seniors. This information would be used by the FTC to work with agencies like the FBI and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to make certain scammers don’t succeed in stealing our seniors’ hard-earned savings.

But improving coordination and cracking down on scamming operations are only part of the solution. We need to encourage seniors to report immediately if they have fallen victim to a scam or if they suspect a potentially fraudulent scheme is targeting them — whether it be over the telephone, by mail or on the Internet.

In Minnesota, there are an estimated 30,000 documented senior fraud cases each year, but sadly, most of these crimes go unreported — only 1 in 44 seniors actually report that they are victims of a fraud scheme, and victims often face confusion on where to turn for help. We need to remove barriers to reporting and one the best ways to do that is improving our complaint system.

Our best line of defense against fraud is education. That’s why my bill would require the FTC to boost efforts to educate not just seniors about fraud, but also ensure their families and caregivers know and understand the signs to identify if their loved one may have fallen victim to a crime. And, the FTC would be required to share information on how to contact the appropriate law enforcement agency to ensure that precious time is not lost to catch a criminal.

And our efforts shouldn’t end there. While scammers use a variety of methods to target seniors, telemarketing calls are a favorite for conducting these scams. The Department of Justice estimates that fraudulent telemarketing alone costs Americans $40 billion annually. The Do-Not Call list was designed to help protect consumers from these calls. We need to ramp up efforts to stop telemarketers who violate the Do-Not-Call list. That’s why I recently called on the Department of Justice to increase their efforts to prosecute criminals of telemarketing scams that target our seniors.

Protecting seniors from fraud is more than just dollars and cents. The emotional and psychological toll these crimes can have on victims cannot be understated. It’s all of our duty to protect the health and well-being of our parents and grandparents, because all Minnesotans deserve to live out their years with dignity and respect.

Amy Klobuchar is a DFL United States senator from Minnesota.

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