Only a few weeks after two Lebanon County senior citizens were scammed out of a combined $34,000, Annville Township police received more than 11 reports of IRS phone scams.
And these scams are not isolated to Lebanon County.
“In Luzerne County we heard the story of a victim being scammed out of $85,000 in the hope of retrieving $1 million lottery winnings,” said U.S. Sen. Bob Casey. “The IRS scams (where the caller says they are with the IRS and intimidates the person into giving away their personal information) are among the worst.”
Casey, a Pennsylvania Democrat, is the ranking member of the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging, and he has been working to both make citizens and legislators aware of scams and to combat the fraudulent activity. He has been part of hearings on scams on both the state and national level, and as a result the committee has released a booklet on fighting fraud.
“Part of it is understanding the scope of the problem, and you can’t understand that by simply reading and learning on your own,” he said. “You do need to listen to folks who have been at this for a while, and that is why we had hearings.”
Through the hearings, Casey said he has found that the problem is widespread and that no part of the country is immune to phone scam activity.
“Obviously this isn’t limited to seniors,” Casey said. “We get reports all the time from people of all ages that get called by these scammers. That is just a reality we have to deal with every day.”
However, scammers tend to target the elderly for several reasons. Seniors are more likely to have a “nest egg,” to own their home or to have excellent credit, according to the FBI.
“In Pennsylvania it is a particularly significant problem when you compare us to other states because we have a lot of seniors in our state,” Casey said.
Sixteen percent of the state’s population is over the age of 65, Casey said. The national average was 15.2 percent as of July 2016, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
People over the age of 65 make up 18 percent of Lebanon’s population, Casey said.
“That is a huge number of folks who are over the age of 65 and who are the main target – not that people under the age of 65 aren’t a target, but the criminals tend to focus on people over 65,” Casey said.
In order to combat scams, Casey is co-sponsoring the Elder Abuse Prevention and Prosecution Act which focuses on bringing scammers to justice and increasing the penalties for that type of fraud.
He is also supporting the Senior Safe Act, which is meant to get banks and other financial institutions more involved in protecting senior citizens by detecting and reporting suspicious activity early.
Law enforcement at all levels is also working to combat fraudulent activity, Casey said.
And Casey has made other efforts to help make things more difficult for scammers.
“I recently sent a letter to the FCC asking them to implement some draft rules that would make it harder for scammers to mislead people with phone numbers that look like they are from the government,” he said.
In an effort to raise awareness of phone scams among seniors, Casey has introduced tip cards and place mats with information on phone scams. About 40,000 of the cards and place mats were sent to 200 Meals on Wheels sites and more than 150 senior centers in the state.
“It is just some basic reminders for seniors to beware of callers that force you to make fast decisions, pressure you not to tell your friends and ask for personal information because sometimes the best way to combat this is by alerting seniors to be on guard,” said Casey. “They’ll be able to detect it in many instances if they have a sense of the tactics and methods used by these criminals.”
Once a call is identified as a scam, it is important to report it immediately.
The good news is that more people seem to be reporting scams. So far this year, 125 individuals from Pennsylvania alone have reported scams to the Aging Committee Fraud Hotline, exceeding 2016’s numbers for the state by more than 30 calls, Casey said.
Reporting a scam can help law enforcement in tracking down scammers and bringing them to justice, something which Casey said he would like to see more of.
“I want these people to be tracked down, prosecuted and thrown in jail,” he said. “They should go to jail for a long time when they rob people of sometimes years’ or even a lifetime’s worth of savings.”
Anyone who receives a suspicious phone call can report it to the U.S. Senate Committee on Aging's Fraud Hotline at 1-855-303-9470.