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Seniors Take Aim at Fraud

Organizations provide information and sources for combating scam artists

It’s a common scam, and one that’s hit local seniors, Ray Soroko says.

"You get a call on the phone," said Soroko, an Arlington senior and chairman of the county branch of Triad, "and they ask for the last three digits of your social security number. They say it's the bank, so they pretend to get your account number wrong, and you give them the right one."

With access to bank account numbers and Social Security numbers, scammers can quickly empty senior citizens' accounts, sometimes stealing one's entire life savings.

According to the 2000 census, there are 32,325 senior citizens, aged 55 and older, living in Arlington, — 19.5 percent of the county population — and as the National Fraud Information Center points out, theirs is the demographic that scammers target most.

According to the National Fraud Information Center, headquartered in Washington, D.C., about 12,000 illegal telemarketing scams are targeted at seniors every day, and "tens of millions of dollars is lost every year by senior citizens through telephone and mail fraud."

The National Fraud Information Center is just one organization combating this problem on a national scale. Resolution 281, currently making its way through Congress, is also a push for awareness, seeking to establish a National Fraud Against Senior Citizens Awareness Week, the week of August 25.

While this resolution is currently waiting to be heard in the Senate Judiciary Committee, U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), committee chair, is one of many who are "actively supportive of protecting senior citizens," said Blice McCormick, Leahy’s press secretary. Leahy also introduced the Senior Safety Act, which "includes protection against telemarketing fraud," McCormick said. She said the resolution is expected to pass quickly and without opposition.

LOCALLY, ARLINGTON OFFERS a few resources to combat scams targeted at seniors. One program that the Arlington Police participates in is the Virginia Financial Institutions Reporting Project.

According to Lt. Steven Broadhurst, the program includes "institutions that deal with finances and senior citizens," such as banks. These institutions contact law enforcement if they have witnessed any change in financial actions, like uncharacteristically large withdrawals, so that the situation can be investigated, Broadhurst said.

"Most of the significant scams are swindles, home repair — the ones that we see are either of significant monetary value, or they have a significant impact on the senior citizen," said Broadhurst.

A recent scam affecting Arlington seniors was conducted with the help of a rubber snake. People pretending to be pest controllers or lawn care specialists would knock on a senior's door, flash a rubber snake in front of the resident saying they had found a real snake in the yard, and insist that their services were needed to take care of the problem.

Broadhurst noted that it is not the quantity of the scams that cause so much concern. Rather, he said, it is the fact that the victims are so often seniors, the impact of the scam, and the potential of the fraud being repeated.

In addition, the police and sheriff departments, along with Arlington seniors' groups, have joined the national move to form Triad, a three-way partnership that exists to reduce the criminal victimization of seniors. A subsidiary organization, Seniors and Law Enforcement Together (SALT), works with Triad.

"Not just by scams," Soroko said. "We're interested in the overall well-being of seniors." However, Soroko admits that scam prevention is "the best part."

Triad and the police department will set up a hot-line for seniors at a number manned by Broadhurst.

Working with the Arlington County Police Department and Arlington senior citizens, Triad wants "to get the word out to Arlington seniors that they have somebody to fall back on," Soroko said, and the best way is through education.

Often, "people get ashamed, that somebody came in and took their money," Soroko said. He encourages seniors who have experienced fraud to come forward to help others.