Nearly 13,000 reports of fraud and scams with $19.4 million in losses reported in West Virginia in 2022
Autumn Shelton, WV Press Association
CHARLESTON, W.Va. – AARP WV leaders are continuing their efforts to keep senior citizens financially safe by encouraging state legislators to consider new fraud protection and recovery bills in 2024.
During Monday morning’s interim meeting of the Legislative Joint Standing Committee on the Judiciary, AARP Associate State Director Angela Vance and AARP State President Jane Marks spoke before committee members to discuss some ideas for potential legislation.
“In 2022, there were 12,967 reports of fraud and scams by West Virginians–amounting to $19.4 million in losses, according to data from the FTC (Federal Trade Commission), with top categories including identity theft, imposter scams, prizes, sweepstakes and lottery scams, online shopping scams and banks and lending scams,” Vance stated.
She explained that the AARP’s Fraud Watch Network and the Fraud Watch Network Helpline are resources that provide free outreach and education to those at-risk of becoming a fraud or scam victim, and those who have become victims. However, she added that these resources are not enough.
“While outreach and education are imperative to this work, they are proving insufficient alone to address the growing problem of fraud and scams,” Vance said.
She suggested that legislators consider bills to “help curtail gift card scams,” which are becoming a common method used by fraudsters to get money quickly from their victims, by requiring that stores post notices alerting customers to gift card scams, and possibly requiring that employees receive training on gift card fraud awareness.
She also suggested that laws could be written that would prevent unfair service agreements, especially in real estate transactions, and further restrict robocalls and spoofing, a method in which a criminal disguises a phone number or email address to be that of a trusted person.
Vance added that legislators should reconsider the Securities Violations Restitution Assistance Act, to help fraud victims financially recover.
During the 2023 Regular Legislative Session, Senate Bill 576, which would have created a fund to provide some financial reimbursement to victims, passed the Senate with 33 votes, but failed to make it out of the House.
“AARP West Virginia looks forward, again, to collaborating on this important legislation in 2024,” Vance stated.
Additionally, Vance suggested that state leaders wait until the FTC issues a ruling with recommendations on regulating automatic renewal contracts and continuous service contracts.
“AARP recommends, like the Uniform Law Commission, that the West Virginia Legislature wait for the FTC to complete its rulemaking before tackling new legislation in this area,” Vance stated, adding this may take two or more years to complete.
Lastly, she suggested that state leaders find other ways to help senior citizens, such as eliminating the state tax on Social Security benefits.
“West Virginia made significant strides in this area a few years ago when it exempted the state’s taxation on Social Security benefits for joint filers making $100,000 or less and single-filers making $50,000 or less,” Vance concluded.
Marks began her presentation by stating that fraud can “critically threaten the health, safety, dignity and independence of vulnerable elderly West Virginians.”
“While good work has been done, sometimes our state’s systemic response to financial exploitation can still be inadequate,” Marks continued. “The problem is multi-faceted, and effective solutions require the concerted and coordinated efforts of many partners working collaboratively.”
She explained that her experience with the West Virginia Financial Exploitation Task Force, which raises public awareness of crimes and provides victim rights support, has been beneficial.
“I will tell you that, initially, I was astounded at the stories I heard, the cases described, and, frankly, the lengths that some will go to to exploit an older adult–many of whom are their family members,” Marks said.
Marks explained that she was proud of the recent work completed to make an arrest in the Huntington-based, Nigerian national romance fraud scheme before she shared a story about a retired high-level Manhattan, NY, executive who was frauded by a couple after they earned her trust.
According to Marks, the retired woman’s bank became alerted when large cash withdrawals were being made from her account. However, when police arrived at her home, she was not there, and neither were her antiques, later found to have been sold to local dealers.
“The woman, and her perpetrators, were eventually located right here in Charleston, West Virginia, eating at a fast food restaurant,” Marks said. “When authorities arrived, the woman appeared to be heavily drugged and in poor physical condition. The perpetrators were arrested–turns out they had a rap sheet a mile long–and the woman now resides here locally in an assisted living facility. It turns out, our laws were more stringent in protecting older adults, so the court here appointed a guardian and this woman will live out the rest of her life safely here in the Mountain State.”
“There is more work that needs to be done, but with your action and support, West Virginia can continue to be on the forefront of protecting our older and most vulnerable citizens,” Marks concluded.
Senator Mike Stuart, R-Kanawha, added that fraud is the most “underreported crime that there is,” because most victims feel embarrassment.
“We have federal judges who have [been] scammed,” Stuart continued. “I have looked at these documents, and these things look so legitimate . . . these are debilitating, terrible, terrible crimes.”
“We need to look at strengthening these laws in respect to prosecuting these folks,” Stuart said. “I think Nigeria, and other countries that are engaged in this type of activity, is diabolical, and I think we need to look at strengthening and making sure there are prosecutors in place to go get these folks and bring them back to West Virginia when they commit these crimes–and give them a nice, lengthy time to serve here in West Virginia.”