2009-10-09 / Columnists

It's My Turn

Helping Our Seniors Fight Fraud
By Senator Kirsten Gillibrand

U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (DNY) sits on the Senate Special Committee on Aging.

As I travel across the state, the seniors that I meet have spent a lifetime saving the best they can for the golden years, working hard their entire lives in hopes of financial security and peace of mind when they retire.

But far too many seniors have a heartbreaking story to tell. According to estimates from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), one out of five seniors have been lured into bad investments and scammed by criminals out of their savings and benefits. A report released by my office estimates that approximately 61,185 Queens seniors suffered a loss of more than $21 million to scams.

More must be done to help Queens seniors protect and empower themselves.

To provide the financial literacy education seniors need and crack down on criminals preying on the elderly, I have proposed the following five-part plan:

First, we need to increase penalties for people who commit fraud against seniors. I recently introduced new federal legislation to create severe consequences for anyone who commits securities violations against seniors in the form of an additional $50,000 civil fine for each violation.

In most cases, there are multiple violations committed against a victim. These new penalties would be a significant deterrent for those who target our community's most vulnerable citizens.

Second, we must crack down on "senior advisor" scams. Too many seniors fall victim to misleading financial advisors claiming to specialize in investments for seniors. My plan includes the creation of a federal grant program to provide New York State with additional resources to prosecute and prevent these scams, and create educational materials for seniors so they can avoid being lured into fraudulent deals.

Third, debt collectors must be prevented from seizing social security and veterans benefits directly deposited into bank accounts. Many Queens seniors rely on social security as their primary source of retirement income. From 2006-2007 alone, a loophole in the current law was exploited by debt collectors to garnish $180 million in direct deposits from seniors bank accounts.

I am working to provide federal protections to close this loophole.

Fourth, abusive mail, telemarketing and internet fraud against seniors must be stopped.

In 2007 alone, postal inspectors investigated 3,000 mail fraud cases and arrested more than 1,200 mail fraud suspects. And as more seniors use e-mail and the Internet, criminals are using tactics to target them online as well.

My plan includes legislation to raise awareness of these abuse tactics on seniors and stop them.

Lastly, in the coming months, AARP, the Hispanic Federation, and advocacy groups will join my staff in holding financial literacy workshops in Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Staten Island designed to empower and protect seniors. Last month, we held our first workshop at Stanley Isaacs Neighborhood Center in Manhattan. More than 60 seniors gained a basic understanding of financial literacy, learned how to recognize scams and where to go for help.

For more details on these upcoming workshops, you can sign up to receive my newsletter at http://gillibrand.senate. gov/.

Our retirees' savings and investments should be in the hands of real experts, not criminals. It's time for Congress to act. After decades of service and hard work, our seniors deserve better.

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