A legislative effort to crack down on scammers who cheat seniors and individuals with disabilities out of thousands of dollars advanced out of a state Senate panel amid increasing signs that perpetrators are preying on vulnerable people via phone and internet.
The Senate’s Law and Public Safety Committee unanimously approved S-601 on Jan. 30. It was the first time the previously introduced bill has had a committee hearing, which led the measure’s chief sponsor, Sen. Declan O’Scanlon (R-Monmouth), to claim growing support during the current session.
“Knowing this issue is in people’s thoughts and in the news, it’s a good time to do this,” he said.
Too embarrassed to report scams
He said the crimes are becoming more common, and they often go unreported because the victims “feel embarrassed or don’t know where to turn.”
“Not only will this bill make it easier for the courts to punish the criminals, it will also shine light on the growing problem and may discourage scammers from exploiting vulnerable residents,” he said.
The bill would impose additional penalties for “fiscal victimization,” meaning theft from seniors or people with disabilities. The crime would be one degree higher than the most serious underlying crime unless that is of the first degree.
Under those circumstances, fiscal victimization would be a first-degree crime, punishable by a prison term of 10 years to 30 years.
A person would be guilty of fiscal victimization for committing, attempting to commit or conspiring with others to commit theft against a senior citizen or a person with a disability.
A conviction for fiscal victimization would not merge with a conviction for the underlying offense, and a court would be able to impose separate sentences for both crimes, the bill says.
Defendants could not claim that they did not know the victim was a senior or disabled, or that the defendant believed the victim was not one of those people.
“Seniors have always been prime targets for criminals who prey on their trusting nature and easy demeanor,” O’Scanlon said. “As technology has developed, it has become easier to find victims and raid their life savings. This can be devastating for people living on fixed incomes.”
A spokesman for the New Jersey State Police said the force doesn’t keep data on such crimes.
Stephanie Hunsinger, AARP New Jersey state director, welcomed the bill as an effort to deter fraud committed on elderly people. “AARP’s policy supports state efforts to increase penalties for elder abuse. This is a positive step in protecting seniors from financial abuse and fraud,” she said.
AARP encouraged seniors to join its Fraud Watch Network to guard against scammers.
According to Federal Trade Commission figures cited by AARP, all kinds of fraud generated 1.7 million consumer complaints in 2019, far more than other complaints such as identity theft and credit bureau complaints.
In New Jersey, an AARP survey on protecting your digital identity found 52% of adults reported seeing fraudulent charges on their credit and debit cards during 2018 but only 15% ordered a security freeze on their credit.
In an interview, O’Scanlon said he was unaware that there’s any official data on the problem and hadn’t personally had any complaints about scammers from his constituents. But he said there are an increasing number of reports in the media and from medical researchers, indicating that older people are especially vulnerable to scammers who convince seniors and people with disabilities, via phone or the internet, to part with their funds.
$200,000 in Walmart gift cards
Among his motivations to sponsor the bill, he said, was a 2019 report on the National Public Radio show Marketplace about a 79-year-old New Jersey woman who had been cheated out of $200,000 by a scammer who showed her what appeared to be her own bank account with no money in it and told her that he would get her money back if she paid him in gift cards from Walmart — a demand that she agreed to.
“This was a perfectly reasonable, rational woman, and it’s crazy that she would fall for this, but she did,” O’ Scanlon said. “We do know that they are being targeted.”
“They are where the money is, and they are the most vulnerable,” he said, referring to people over 50. “They seem to be more gullible as they get older.”
The scammers find their targets via phone and especially via the internet, which has enabled many attacks, sometimes from overseas, he said.
“You don’t have to show up at someone’s house with a gun,” he said. “You can let yourself in through their computer.”