Elder fraud cases on the rise

Chenault’s legislation aimed to protect Alaska’s elderly

Posted: Sunday, September 10, 2006

Saying he expects the number of fraud cases involving older Alaskans to rise, Rep. Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, has taken legislative action to help senior citizens and supports efforts of fellow legislators to do the same.

“We’ve had probably three or four cases come to us this year and the latter part of last year,” Chenault said.

“Some of the problem we see with seniors is they’re embarrassed and when they finally come forward to talk about being swindled, there was nowhere to send them,” the Kenai Peninsula representative said.

Earlier this year, Chenault pushed House Bill 399 through Juneau, creating a division within the Office of Public Advocacy to focus on elder fraud.

Chenault said that when constituents called his office previously, he tried to get them help through one state agency or another, but there was no central agency or department in state government to which he could refer the cases.

In a sponsor’s statement for his bill, Chenault said the new OPA division would remove the embarrassment stigma that goes along with reporting fraud and asking for help.

“House Bill 399 sends a clear signal that Alaskan senior citizens will be protected from dishonorable individuals,” the statement said.

The bill received 36 “yes” votes in the House and 19 in the Senate, providing $189,000 in funding to OPA for fiscal year 2007, Chenault said.

“I suspect it will be a line item from now on,” he said.

OPA may now investigate complaints involving fraud against Alaskans who are 55 or older, and may bring civil action for injunctive relief against those who defraud elders.

“There are some slick operators out there and they will part you of your money,” Chenault said.

“The cons are dealing with people that are fragile — some who aren’t fragile — or people who have lived their lives honestly and have their guard down,” he said.

“You have seniors who have worked hard all their lives ... now they’re vulnerable,” Chenault said. “We’re seeing more and more cases.”

In addition to Chenault’s bill, Rep. Lesil McGuire, R-Anchorage, introduced House Bill 446, which stiffens the civil penalty for those who defraud.

“The Federal Trade Commission recently reported that Alaska topped the nation in fraud complaints last year: 249 per 100,000 people,” McGuire’s sponsor statement said.

H.B. 446 doubles the maximum penalty to $50,000 for violating an injunction prohibiting unfair or deceptive business practices and increases the penalty for each violation of the state Unfair Practices and Consumer Protection Act from $5,000 to a range between $1,000 and $25,000.

After the bill was passed by the Legislature, McGuire issued a statement saying, “The driving force behind my introduction of this legislation was not only that so many Alaskans are victims of consumer fraud, but that a disproportionate number of victims are senior citizens.”

According to the National Consumer League’s fraud information center, nearly one-third of all telemarketing fraud victims are 60 or older.

The consumer group says the first step in helping older people who may be targets is “to convince them that fraudulent telemarketers are hardened criminals who don’t care about the pain they cause when they steal someone’s life savings.”

“In reality we don’t have places to put these people,” said Chenault. “A lot of these cases are being plea bargained.”

Adding to the growing problem of elder fraud is that the crime is seen as “victim-less,” because no physical harm is done to the victim, Chenault said.

“But they can be devastating,” he said. “It is wrong; it is criminal; it should be prosecuted.”

Chenault said he welcomes any seniors who believe they may be fraud victims to come to his office for help.

“Now we’ll have the ability to send them somewhere to get help and a resolution to their problem,” he said.

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