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Exclusive: Attorney General Merrick B. Garland Vows to Fight Scams Targeting Older Americans

The AG tells AARP how the DOJ is working to stop criminals’ ‘pernicious’ fraud schemes

The attorney general urges older Americans to report fraud to the DOJ’s National Elder Fraud Hotline at 833-FRAUD-11 (833-372-8311). The hotline, managed by the Office for Victims of Crime, is staffed by experienced professionals who provide personalized support to callers, including resources and referrals.

One thing is for certain: Many Americans are fed up with having to contend with the constant barrage of emails, texts and phone calls from criminals maneuvering to steal their money through ever-evolving and often highly sophisticated schemes. It’s “overwhelming,” agreed Attorney General Merrick B. Garland, 70, during a recent interview with AARP at the Department of Justice (DOJ) about what the federal government is doing to fight fraud — which is often aimed at older adults. He said that while the DOJ is dedicated to the effort, it’s challenged by the fact that these crimes are “innovative and constantly changing.” Here’s more from our discussion with Garland. (The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.)

spinner image U. S. Attorney General Merrick Garland photographed in his office, February 2023
Attorney General Merrick B. Garland photographed on Feb. 2, 2023.
Greg Kahn

We are all completely overwhelmed by attempted scams, and sometimes it feels like law enforcement is not really dealing with the problem effectively. Do you agree?

Well, I think that the pernicious attempt to target older Americans is overwhelming. There’s no doubt about that. And so we are mounting resources in response to that. We have 20 U.S. Attorney’s Offices assigned to the DOJ’s Transnational Elder Fraud Strike Force, and more than 70 prosecutors specifically assigned to the Health Care Fraud Unit, which is very much involved in Medicare fraud as well. We’ve established a hotline for people who suspect fraud [see box above] to call in to get advice, to get support and to get recompense, where we are able to get that. I think there is a large problem, and we are responding with a large reaction.

But from the point of view of any individual older American, it can certainly be overwhelming. People are calling and asking for your Social Security number or your Medicare number. They’re telling you that your grandchild is under arrest somewhere and needs money for bail.

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AARP emphasizes the need for fraud victims to report these crimes.

Yes, I urge reporting. But prevention is the very first thing. You’re dealing with experts here, and the best solution when dealing with a potential scam attempt is to slow it down. Nobody should be calling you out of the blue and asking you for your Social Security number. Nobody should be calling you out of the blue and asking you for your checking account number. Nobody should be calling you out of the blue and asking for your email address.

What are some of the latest fraud-fighting challenges that concern you most?

Unfortunately, crime is innovative and constantly changing. This is a problem for us and a problem for everyone. People use the word “crypto” as if it’s a magic thing, and we’ve seen recently that it’s not so magic. But it sounds cool and high-tech. There’s no such thing as a free lunch. If somebody says they’re going to give you 20 percent interest every year and guarantee it, it probably is a Ponzi scheme. Secondly, people may try to get you to convert your money into cryptocurrency and then send it somewhere. There is no reason that most older Americans need to trade in crypto; checking accounts and cash and credit cards are fine.

Another area that we are a little bit worried about is criminals using innocent people as a cutout [or money mule] to transfer money back to a foreign country. So if some foreign criminal perpetrates fraud in the United States, they don’t want the money transferred directly back to them. So they make some calls and say, “We’ll pay you $20 if you will just put this money in your bank account and then transmit that amount of money to our bank accounts. It’s free money for you. We’ll give you 20 percent or 30 percent.” And that’s a way of money laundering.

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So much of fraud appears to be transnational. What is the DOJ doing to combat it on an international level?

We are very much a transnational anti-crime organization. We have FBI agents and Justice Department lawyers all around the world, and very good relations with many countries. So we can extradite people. We extradite drug lords. We can certainly extradite fraudsters. Obviously, it’s easier for us to arrest somebody in the United States than in a foreign country. But we’re not going to let that stop us.

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Many people are concerned with Medicare fraud; some say that 10 percent of Medicare funds go to waste or fraud. What can be done?

You should look at your explanation of benefits every time you get a statement from Medicare or from any other Medicare-adjacent program. There’s going to be an explanation of why this charge was paid, and you should read it — most people don’t read these things. If it says that you underwent a certain kind of test and you didn’t — now, that may just be a mistake, but it may be fraud. That’s the kind of thing we need people to report.

A big problem is billing for tests that people actually don’t take, or second tests that they don’t need. We’ve just prosecuted a health care entity that was requiring genetic and psychological tests, saying, “You have to do this if you want regular medical care.” There is no such requirement like that. People should be suspicious if somebody is asking them for something that sounds nonsensical like that.

What kind of effort is the DOJ making to investigate or combat it?

This is what our Health Care Fraud Unit does. And we now have the benefit of big data, so we have the ability to do statistical analyses of payments that Medicare is sending out. It helps us identify health care entities and doctors who have anomalous payment histories — where they’re doing way more of a certain kind of test than other doctors are doing or charging far more than other doctors. This helps us and our inspectors general at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services focus in on where we might find fraud. We use that to focus on investigations.

A group of criminals behind a "grandparent scam" (they called older adults and posed as a grandchild or another family member in crisis with an urgent need for money) were recently prosecuted under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, the first time the federal government has used RICO to fight fraud. Will this be a precedent for how these kinds of crimes will be prosecuted in the future?

These really are organized crime rings, and we are going to respond in a way we historically have responded to organized crime and to organized drug trafficking. RICO is one of the best tools we have — it takes down the whole organization. As a recent grandparent, I’m really interested [in this case].

Is there anything else in particular you’d like to say to AARP members?

I think the main message is, one, report fraud. If it’s something that’s already happened, we can prosecute, and we can support you. So that’s one side of it. And the other side is prevention. We want to prevent this from happening. So before you ever give out your personal information, pause. The fraud perpetrator is going to try to rush you through — “You’ve got to do it right now or something will happen to your grandchild …” — but it doesn’t work that way. The IRS is not calling you on the phone and telling you that if you don’t send money, if you don’t go to Target to buy a gift card, we will foreclose on your house.

I used to get telephone calls, supposedly from some sheriff, who’d say, “If you don’t provide the money right away, we will bring you to court.” And I knew enough to know that that’s not going to happen — there’s no sheriff who’s going to be calling me on the telephone. But not everybody knows that.  

So you get a lot of scam calls and texts, like everyone else?

Plenty of them. I hate to say this, but sometimes the answer is don’t answer the phone from somebody you don’t know. And if you have relatives or children who can help you with a potential scam, pause and ask them for advice before you go about doing something, particularly before you start giving over personal information or handing over your assets.

One last point. AARP is working to combat the shame and blame that fraud victims often experience. Do you have thoughts you’d like to share on that?

Yes. These people are experts, sophisticated criminals. They hit thousands of potential victims, and they just move on from one victim to the next until they find an opening. And nobody should feel shame with being scammed. They are experts at the psychology of the con, and the way to get back at that con is to report it as soon as possible. And the way to prevent it in the first place is to slow it down.

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