The Senior Action Coalition: A Model To Use To Help Protect Senior Citizens From Financial Fraud

A Model To Use To Help Protect Senior Citizens From Financial Fraud

By: Carol Sikov Gross

If someone had told me two-and-a-half years ago that a telephone call from Assistant United States Attorney Barbara Carlin from Pittsburgh would have led to a national campaign to make seniors more aware of financial fraud, I would thought that he or she was crazy. However, that is just what happened. Believe it or not!

When I received the call from Ms. Carlin in late 1999, I was Chair of the Elder Law Committee of the Allegheny County Bar Association. Ms. Carlin was putting together a task force to look at the growing issue of financial fraud against senior citizens and to decide what could be done to help protect these individuals from being victimized. The first meeting was held shortly thereafter to create the concepts which are at the heart of the Senior Action Coalition. Attendees were members of the Allegheny County Bar Association Elder Law Committee including myself, Frank Petrich, CFP and CELA, Tom Lilly, a Pittsburgh long-term care insurance broker, as well as Assistant U.S. Attorney Barbara Carlin, Robert Bernardini of Mullen Communications, Harry Corbett of SCORE (Service Corps of Retired Executives), along with representatives of the Postal Inspection Service, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, the Pennsylvania Securities Commission, AARP, the District Attorney's Office, the Allegheny County Department of Aging and others.

Several meetings were held and the problems of seniors being the victims of numerous types of fraudulent schemes were discussed. One of these scams involve foreign lotteries where a person is told that he or she has won the Canadian lottery but that in order to receive their prize, the taxes must first be paid. The person is asked to send a check to pay those taxes, and then the winnings will be mailed. Of course, even after the "taxes" are paid, no winnings are sent.

We also reviewed the inappropriate, and possibly unethical, sale of deferred annuities and revocable living trusts to seniors who had no need of these types of investments or estate planning documents because of age or because they only had very limited assets. We discussed ways of stopping these types of sales.

Other types of scams involved the sale by telephone of sure-fire or guaranteed "no-risk" investments through the use of "boiler rooms" of fast-talking slick salesmen. These salesmen say whatever it takes to get a potential buyer to buy. Sometimes, the salesman could be dealing with "free" vacations, magazine subscriptions, vitamins or other promotional items. Another growing area of concern was identity theft where the "bad guys" steal another person's identity, take assets and ruin that person's credit.

The coalition also looked at statistics dealing with fraud. The Alliance Against Fraud in Telemarketing and Electronic Commerce indicates that people age 60 and over account for approximately 26 percent of telemarketing fraud victims. Telemarketing fraud costs people over $40 billion dollars per year. It is a very expensive problem. The Postal Inspectors indicated that mail fraud complaints were on the rise. There were 66,000 complaints in 2001 and, already more than 68,000 complaints in 2002, with at least one-third of the year still ahead. Over 60 percent of these complaints involve senior citizens.

It was quite an eye-opening experience to hear the horror stories from the law enforcement types such as Andrew Richards, a Postal Inspector. We determined that our group wanted to help prevent senior citizens from becoming the victims of scam artists. We decided to establish a 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation known as the SENIOR ACTION COALITION. We wanted to SAC Fraud. Our mission had three (3) goals. First, SAC wanted to educate senior citizens and their caregivers about the various fraudulent schemes that were out there and about how they could avoid becoming a victim. Second, SAC wanted to serve as a clearinghouse for information about fraud. Seniors or caregivers could contact us at an 800 number to report possible scams. Third, SAC wanted to help victims get their information to the appropriate law enforcement agencies to help the victims prosecute the criminals.

Attorney Gregory L. Klink prepared the papers to from the non-profit corporation. We wanted to able to receive tax-deductible contributions to fund the preparation of the educational materials. Robert Bernardini of Mullen donated the time, expertise and creativity of his staff to preparing the materials needed to do the education of the senior citizens and their families. These materials included a set of transparencies to use for presentations as well as a brochure with the eyes of a senior citizen on the cover and the words:

He lived through two world wars and fought in one.
He helped raise six children and three dogs.
He saved a long time for his retirement.

DON'T LET ONE PHONE CALL TAKE IT ALL AWAY.

This brochure really "grabbed" anyone who saw it. Using this brochure and the other materials, a grant application was submitted to the Allegheny County Bar Foundation. Through the Foundation's generosity, this grant was made and 1,000 sets of materials were prepared. Another grant was obtained with the assistance of Attorney Robert B. Wolf. These funds along with tax-deductible gifts from other private citizens permitted additional materials to be printed. I, as the Treasurer of SAC, paid the printing bills as well as the bills necessary to make sure that SAC was approved as a not-for-profit corporation. I continue to seek and receive contributions to SAC to help its on-going efforts at education about the problems of fraud against senior citizens. Professor Martha Mannix of the University of Pittsburgh School of Law and head of its Elder Law Clinic has used her expertise in preparing grant applications as SAC seeks additional funding.

Using these materials, presentations were made to various senior citizen groups in Pennsylvania. Tom Lilly, Postal Inspector Andrew Richards and Assistant U.S. Attorney Barbara Carlin and others were instrumental in using the SAC materials to educate seniors and their families. Other presentations included: the 2001 Annual Statewide Meeting of the Registers of Wills of the 67 counties, at the invitation of David N. Wecht, Esquire, Register of Wills of Allegheny County; the Pennsylvania Bar Institute 4th Annual Elder Law Institute; a joint meeting of the Allegheny County Bar Association Elder Law Committee and the Pennsylvania Bar Association's Elder Law Committee (which became a Section on January 1, 2002), the Downtown Pittsburgh Rotary and the Catholic Charities Association.

Attorney Kemp Scales has made SAC presentations in Titusville, PA, and has told us about being contacted by a bank teller who had seen one of his presentations. The teller convinced an elderly woman to talk to an attorney before taking a large sum of money out of her account to pay taxes on her Canadian lottery winnings. This elderly woman was saved from becoming the victim of a scam because of SAC's educational efforts.

While we were all busy locally, Postal Inspector Richards saw the SAC brochure presented at a hearing before the United States Senate. It "grabbed" the senators who saw it and convinced the Postal Inspection Service to take the fight against fraud national through the use of the "eyes" brochure. With the assistance of U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan, additional support was obtained from other government officials to spread the idea of protecting seniors from financial fraud around the country.

All of this hard work paid off more than Barbara Carlin and certainly the rest of the Senior Action Coalition ever expected. Robert Bernardini and the people at Mullen put forth a great deal of effort to develop public service announcements and newspaper advertisements, to get a national spokesperson, and to coordinate everything needed to successfully implement the plan to raise the level of public awareness about the fraud perpetrated on unsuspecting seniors and their families. Other attorneys, AARP members and representatives of various law enforcement agencies generously gave of themselves as well.

National Fraud Against Senior Citizens Awareness Week began on Monday, August 26, 2002. Betty White, a well-known Emmy-award winning actress, was the national spokesperson for the campaign. Posters were put up in over 38,000 post offices around the country as well as flyers being mailed out to the households of approximately three million senior citizens and their families. There were half-page newspaper advertisements in certain selected cities and television public service announcements.

This campaign is the first time that the U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft and Canada's Solicitor General Lawrence McCauley have launched a joint effort to combat fraud, particularly against senior citizens, of both countries. There are two (2) toll-free numbers for victims or their families to use, one in the United States which goes to the Federal Trade Commission at 1-877-987-3728 and one in Canada at 1-888-495-8501. There will be joint task forces and prosecution officers as well as a database of fraud complaints.

National Fraud Against Senior Citizens Awareness Week just goes to show that the efforts of a small group of highly motivated volunteers can make a big difference, a bigger difference than they may have thought possible. As Tom Lilly says, "SAC is a grassroots organization with punch."

The Senior Action Coalition is a model than can be duplicated in other counties in Pennsylvania or even around the country. All it takes are local attorneys, local senior citizen groups and local representatives of law enforcement agencies being willing to work together to protect senior citizens from the unscrupulous acts of money-hungry criminals. Call SAC if you or your community is interested in a presentation or in establishing a SAC group in your area at 1-800-846-4677 or write to SAC at the U.S. Postal Inspection Service 1001 California Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15290. I'm glad that I took the time and effort to get involved.