Senate Panel Probes Scams Against Elderly

Richmond Chambers, 92, was suspicious when he got a call from a man who asked for private information so he could restore Chambers' credit card account after a computer glitch.

But Chambers was put at ease by the caller, who already had his address, phone number and credit card number and who provided a call-back number so Chambers could verify that he worked for the credit card company.

"He had a very official voice," Chambers said. "He was very convincing."

Chambers called the verification number and was convinced the man was legitimate -- until he saw a flier the next day, alerting people in his apartment building that it was a scam.

In the end, Chambers did not lose any money -- his real credit card company froze payments that were run up in the scam. But others were not so lucky, he said in testimony Thursday at a Senate hearing on financial scams (search) that target senior citizens.

The hearing by the Aging Subcommittee of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee comes more than eight months after the introduction of the Elder Justice Act (search).

That bill, which has 31 co-sponsors, would provide public awareness grants, encourage banks to watch for unusual account activity, allow for the collection of data on financial exploitation of the elderly and help state and local prosecutors working on such cases.

Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. (search) testified Thursday that public awareness is important, and he suggested having credit card companies include fraud awareness tips with each month's bill.

Curran also suggested that other states follow Maryland's lead in relaxing banking privacy regulations so bank tellers can report suspicious activity in an elderly person's account.

Before that law was passed, he said, a Maryland bank teller could not tell authorities if an elderly customer suddenly started coming in with a young person to withdraw unusually large amounts of money. Now such activity is reported to Adult Protective Services (search) in Maryland, but banks are not liable if the fraud goes undetected.

AARP Board Member Lee Hammond agreed with Curran that education is important, citing a number of AARP (search) campaigns designed to inform members about fraud.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., suggested that AARP's "consumer university" seminars, which tell seniors how to guard their money, might be used as a model for similar programs by county offices on aging.

Chambers testified that public awareness campaigns directed at senior citizens would have helped him. He was one of 40 senior citizens in his community victimized by the same credit card scam, said Anna Smith, a civilian investigator with the local police department who attended the hearing but did not testify.

Smith said 250 people in that community -- all senior citizens -- got calls similar to Chambers' from a scam operation in Florida. "I think my youngest victim is 65," Smith said.

Officials caught on to the scam and froze $130,000 in wire transfers, but not before the scammers netted more than $90,000, Smith said. The county sent investigators to Florida in July where nine people were arrested. Three are still wanted.

When asked what advice he had for fellow seniors, Chambers laughed and said, "I think the main thing is, don't be stupid.

"Older people who don't get out as much get a little rusty," he said. "I was when I got taken."