WASHINGTON – Maine Sen. Susan Collins is co-sponsoring legislation to create an office within the Federal Trade Commission that would alert senior citizens to potential fraud schemes and serve as a centralized location for reporting scams.

Collins, a Republican, introduced the bill this week with Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., in response to concerns about a disjointed federal response to scams targeting the elderly. The Senate Special Committee on Aging – on which Collins is the top-ranking Republican – has held hearings on a lottery scam that has cost some Maine seniors their life savings as well as online payday loan companies that use predatory tactics in violation of state law.

The Klobuchar-Collins bill would direct the FTC to create an advisory office within its Bureau of Consumer Protection to monitor for and investigate potential schemes targeting the elderly. The office would be responsible for disseminating information about common scams to senior citizens, their families and caregivers, including through a special website that would serve as an information clearinghouse and explain the proper process for contacting law enforcement.

Fraud victims and their family members have complained about being ignored or passed off by law enforcement agencies, especially at the federal level — a frustration heard repeatedly by families affected by the Jamaican lottery scams targeting seniors in Maine and across the United States.

The bill aims to address that, at least in part, by creating a toll-free hotline at the FTC that victims or families could call to report scams, with each complaint being logged and tracked. Those complaints would be “made available” to federal, state and local law enforcement, although the bill does not specify how.

Collins specifically mentioned the Jamaican lottery scam in announcing the bill.

“At a hearing earlier this year, we highlighted the need to crack down on this illegal activity by educating consumers and better coordinating government resources,” Collins said in a statement. “Our parents and grandparents worked hard and saved for retirement. We should do all that we can to coordinate efforts to educate consumers and share information amongst law enforcement stakeholders about these scams targeting our seniors so that we can stop these criminals.”

“This bill will give seniors and their families the tools they need to avoid scams before they happen, and will also help make sure that when a complaint is filed, it gets into the right hands so it can be addressed swiftly and effectively,” said Klobuchar, who asked Collins to co-sponsor the legislation.

The bill does not provide any new funding, however, and indicates that the FTC would be expected to carry out the additional responsibilities with existing resources. The FTC, like most federal agencies, is already operating on a slimmed-down budget due to the across-the-board cuts under budget sequestration.

Elderly Americans are often targeted by a host of fraudulent schemes, ranging from imaginary lotteries to charity scams and predatory home lending.

The Jamaican lottery scam that has drawn the attention of the Senate Special Committee on Aging is estimated to cost U.S. seniors up to $300 million a year. One Maine law enforcement officer estimates that the average loss among the cases he has investigated was $60,000 to $70,000.

But the officer, York County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Bill King, recently said he continues to see significant room for improvement in how federal agencies respond to scam complaints.

“I still don’t see a concerted federal effort,” King said. “I still don’t see anyone taking the lead on it.”

Law enforcement officials from the United States and Jamaica recently told the Portland Press Herald that more than 30 people have been arrested in Jamaica since March under a new law intended to crack down on the lottery scam. Several American or Jamaican citizens have also been arrested in the United States, including one linked to thefts from a woman in Bath.

 

Washington Bureau Chief Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at:

kmiller@pressherald.com