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President's Corner

Fighting Fraud: If It Sounds Too Good to Be True ...

It always pays to have your scam detector on

A 95-year-old gentleman in Colorado recently received a series of calls urging him to invest in a "can't fail" opportunity. As he talked with the caller over several weeks, he became increasingly intrigued with the caller's proposal: All he had to do was give them his bank account number, let them withdraw $20,000, and he'd get a quick 10-to-1 return on his investment. Fortunately, he called the AARP Foundation ElderWatch hotline instead. It turned out his caller was in prison, serving time for previous telephone scams.

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Just in time for National Consumer Protection Week in March, the Colorado and Washington fraud fighter hotlines were commended by two of the federal agencies they work with, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

AARP Foundation has three toll-free fraud fighter hotlines, located in Washington state, West Virginia and Colorado. All of them are operated by volunteers and staff trained to recognize and report the myriad of scams that are aimed at people 50 and older every day. The scams run the gamut, from investment to lotteries to work-at-home to Medicare fraud.

About a year ago, a local bank employee called the AARP Foundation Colorado hotline. She wanted to check something a customer was about to invest in —  it just didn't smell right. A company called We the People was selling charitable gift annuities, claiming they offered rewarding financial benefits and were safe and secure, reinsured and backed up by assets held in trust. The offer didn't pass the sniff test among the volunteers either. Amy Nofziger, director of regional operations for the Income impact area, called the bank employee, the customer who wanted to buy the charitable gift annuity and the SEC's Denver office. The SEC began an investigation.

As a result of that investigation, in February the SEC filed charges against We the People, saying the scam had fleeced $75 million from 400 mostly older investors in Florida, Colorado and Texas. In a March 4 letter to AARP Foundation, the SEC commended AARP Foundation Colorado staff and volunteers for their "exemplary efforts." Without their quick reporting of the suspected scam, said the SEC, "hundreds of investors would still have funds at risk in this scheme."

Meanwhile, the FTC announced that it was mailing more than 50,000 refund checks totaling more than $685,000 to older consumers who were victimized by a bogus work-at-home and grant scam, "Real Wealth." In an ongoing partnership with the AARP Foundation Fraud Fighter hotline in Washington, the FTC said it would send all check recipients contact information for the fraud call center there and commended the call center for its guidance to consumers about avoiding scams and staying safe.

Since it was established in 2006, the Foundation Fraud Fighter hotline in Washington, directed by Jean Mathisen, has helped more than 300,000 consumers. The calls aren't always incoming, either: The hotline volunteers also reach out to alert victims of potential scams, using "sucker lists" sold and resold by the scammers. These lists often include detailed information about the potential victim's finances, personal interests and any specific scams they've already fallen for.

I'm very proud of the work our three AARP Foundation Fraud Fighter call centers are doing to help vulnerable older people avoid even more financial worries. I know how hard they work and how seriously they take their jobs, whether they are volunteers or staff. It's terrific to have them on the Foundation's team.

Jo Ann Jenkins is executive vice president & chief operating officer of AARP and president of AARP Foundation.

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