On Wednesday, I had the honor of chairing the first-ever virtual meeting of the Elder Justice Coordinating Council.
The EJCC brings together leaders from across the federal government to address issues of elder justice nationally. Council members include the leaders of federal departments, agencies, and entities administering programs related to abuse, neglect, or financial exploitation. We were excited to welcome the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, marking the 15th member of the EJCC.
I'll be honest, we thought fleetingly about postponing this meeting until we could meet in person. But we knew right away that the COVID-19 pandemic makes the work of the EJCC even more urgent.
This point was underscored by Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, who noted in his introduction to our meeting that the pandemic and social isolation increase the risk of abuse, neglect, and exploitation faced by older adults.
Sec. Azar made clear that "concern for older Americans has to be at the center of our COVID-19 response.” (Watch Secretary Azar's recorded opening remarks.)
Over the last three months, we have seen the emergence of an alarming number of new scams and fraud schemes taking advantage of the coronavirus pandemic. Today's EJCC meeting sought to shine a light on financial exploitation during this pandemic and the work being done to fight these pernicious practices around the country.
Gary Mottola, Research Director of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority Investor Education Foundation, and Emma Fletcher, Program Analyst, Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, presented findings from a study of people who have been targeted by scams and fraud. The study highlighted the importance of public awareness, finding that people who knew more about the methods of scammers, and especially those who had heard about a specific scam, were less likely to lose money when targeted. The study reinforced existing research, which has shown that financial insecurity and social isolation both increase a person’s risk. It also found that people were more likely to lose money if they tended to blame victims for fraud. This information can help us develop more effective approaches to educating people about risks and how to protect themselves.
While this research was conducted before the COVID-19 pandemic, I found the lessons particularly relevant now, as physical distancing measures are increasing social isolation for many older adults.
In a panel discussion, federal agencies shared coronavirus-related scams they are tackling:
- Jeffrey Buckner, Associate Commissioner at the Social Security Administration’s Office of Communication, discussed scams perpetrated by fraudsters claiming to be the government. Some of these scammers falsely assert that Social Security payments could be "suspended" because of the pandemic. He also discussed efforts to stop "spoofing," which makes fraudulent calls appear to be coming from legitimate numbers.
- Ronald Burke, Executive Director of Pension and Fiduciary Services at the VA’s Veterans Benefits Administration, shared information about a scam targeting Medal of Honor recipients and efforts to protect beneficiaries, including by improving the screening of fiduciaries.
Our next presenters represented some of the governmental enforcement agencies that are members of the EJCC.
- Lois Greisman, Associate Director of the Division of Marketing Practices and Elder Justice Coordinator at the Federal Trade Commission discussed the data from the FTC SENTINEL database, including a variety of new COVID-related scams they are working to stop including “miracle cures,” fake testing kits, multi-level marketing schemes, robocalls, identity theft, and fake or stolen government relief checks. The FTC encourages the public to report scams and sign up for alerts.
- Antoinette Bacon, Associate Deputy Attorney General and Elder Justice Coordinator at the Department of Justice, discussed the record number of cases being brought by the Department of Justice saying, "fraudsters are working overtime, but so is the DOJ." She also highlighted work by the DOJ to stop robocalls and money mules, and the recently launched National Elder Fraud Hotline, which is staffed by experienced case managers who can help guide individuals through the reporting process at the federal, state, and local levels (1-833-FRAUD11).
- Gary Barksdale, Chief Postal Inspector at the United States Postal Inspection Service, provided updates on partnerships to stop fraud, including schemes involving the hoarding of medical supplies and attempts to steal unemployment or relief payments.
- Michael Herndon, Acting Assistant Director of the Office of Older Americans at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, walked through the hallmarks of a typical government imposter scam, including the tactic of giving the names of real government officials and highlighted a lawsuit CFPB brought to stop two companies who were falsely representing themselves as government agencies and misrepresenting debt services. He also shared CFBP coronavirus resources and announced a new Elder Fraud Prevention and Response Networks Development Guide released today.
A reoccurring theme throughout these presentations was the importance of partnerships between federal agencies. For example, Associate Deputy Attorney General Bacon spoke about the importance of FTC complaint data in DOJ’s enforcement work.
“The more of you out there who file complaints - and importantly, the more states out there who contribute their data to FTC’s Consumer Sentinel - the more clues DOJ has in order to better detect and dismantle these transnational criminal organizations that are running these large-scale fraud schemes,” she said.
Something else that came up in many of the conversations was the importance of engaging the entire community in efforts to stop financial exploitation, and the key role of people who are not often thought of as being officially connected to elder justice work. For example, one group of unsung heroes who came up repeatedly was cashiers. Many scammers will try to get older adults to purchase gift cards, putting alert cashiers in a unique position to help customers spot scams.
Another important bulwark against financial exploitation can be frontline staff at financial institutions. Jilenne Gunther, National Director of AARP BankSafe Initiative, spoke about AARP’s BankSafe training program for financial institutions. She explained the free hour-long online training program that has demonstrably helped bank tellers and other front line staff of financial institutions identify potential financial exploitation and take actions to stop it. An evaluation found that the program increased staff knowledge and confidence in intervening with customers and led to savings for consumers.
Finally, Ronda Kent, Assistant Commissioner for Payment Management at the U.S. Department of the Treasury's Bureau of the Fiscal Service, spoke about the Direct Express program. The program offers people who receive federal benefits like Social Security an alternative to direct deposit into a bank account, while preserving FDIC protections. People who choose this option receive their payments on prepaid debit card. An important element of the program is its robust education campaign, which educates cardholders about how to avoid fraud associated with the cards, and understand options for financial transactions.
Reflecting on Wednesday's meeting, I am grateful that we continue to discover new tools and new partners as we work toward elder justice. As Sec. Azar said, “collectively, we can be a tremendous force for good – a force that can be truly effective in addressing elder abuse, neglect, and exploitation."